Cuddling and Holding As Stress Reducers
and . . . As Possible Stress Increasers

by John A. Speyrer

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"Bonding is a strong emotional attachment that helps us want to be with one another, help and protect each other and touch and become sexual with one another. High levels of oxytocin encourage and strengthen bonding. Because early trauma and lack of love affect the output of this hormone, the ability to relate to others and have good sex later in life may be determined even before birth and just after. We learn how to bond emotionally in adulthood through early bonding in childhood, as simplistic as that sounds."
-- Dr. A. Janov's blog - On Vital Signs in Primal Therapy, Feb 10, 2010


The July/August, 2005, issue of Psychosomatic Medicine reports how "warm partner contact" or cuddling can mitigate the effects of stressful activities. A study by Grewin, Girdler, Amico and Light at the University of North Carolina's department of psychiatry reported on two studies of couples, in stabilized relationships, who before undergoing a stressful experience (they were told they would be giving a public speech) received body cuddling from their spouses. Each group and its control were placed in separate rooms, their blood pressure, oxytocin and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels were measured.

During their speeches those speakers who had not received hugs and cuddles from their partners had heart rates and blood pressure rates which were much higher than speakers from the other couples who had held hands and embraced for 20 seconds.

It was reported: "Our findings suggest that when the relationship is supportive and strong, time spent with the partner may be beneficial by reducing blood pressure and protecting against future heart disease," and concluded: "These are the first findings in humans linking oxytocin to the strength of the partner relationship, and it was seen in both men and women.''

The study surmised that oxytocin is one factor which gives marriage its beneficial effects by calming distress. Perhaps the increased level of oxytocin explains why married couples live longer, although I remember reading somewhere that some wag claimed that marriage couples didn't live longer - it only seemed longer ! Statistics show that being divorced, single or experiencing grief can damage one's health. Increased oxytocin may have a number of other unknown health benefits. And not just any hug or touch will do. For example, a perfunctory hug will not raise those desirable hormone levels.


"More typically in healthy relationships, sex improves
with time and shared experiences. Addictive sex, on the other hand,
wanes with increased knowledge of the other person
because it no longer provides escape from buried feelings."

-- Charlotte D. Kasl, Ph.D. in Women, Sex, and Addiction

The implications of a full study of the effects of touch and cuddling would have been much broader if it had included couples where the relationship wasn't "supportive and strong", to use the words from the authors of the study, who apparently screened out couples from participating in the study when the relationship wasn't "supportive and strong."

Those of us in primal and other deeply regressive therapies know how biographical traumatic events which go back to birth and before and to infancy and early childhood cause us to become who we are, and possessing personalities which we are powerless to change.

If such "neurotic" partners of couples had been intentially included in the study, there might have been measureable biochemical data that showed a qualitative and quantitative difference in touching and hugging, which might be a function of the repressed trauma in those individuals.

Couples can go through the motions of touching and hugging and these behaviors can result in a very different biochemical experience, depending on the shape and amount of their repressed pain, and whether there has been enough time for it to rise in their relationship.

Repressed memories from early physical events like spankings, sexual abuse and birth trauma can all be unconsciously triggered by touch and holding; even by touch and holding received from loved ones. In such cases, my guess is that the level of oxytocin could very well become reduced. What this means is that there are people who, under certain conditions, cannot be comforted in the same way that "normal" people can be comforted in a stressful situation -- and attempts at comforting might even have an opposite effect.

I would guess that there are some people who have so much repressed pain related to touching and holding that touching and holding would increase their cortisol levels and reduce oxytocin levels, in what for them is a stressful experience because it triggers enormously stressful repressed experiences from the past.

It's all about repressed emotional pain and learning. Try petting a stray dog who has been kicked and abused and you just heighten its anxiety, as the animal always expects to be mistreated. So instead of hugging releasing the "love" and "relaxation" hormones, cuddling for some people, could conceivably not have the desired effect, and it might have the opposite effect.

In most marriages, the sexual honeymoon of newlyweds does not continue indefinitely, and in a disheartening number of cases, love is soon replaced with tension and constant bickering. Why does the deep love originally shared by the spouses soon turn them into strangers and even enemies? Primal therapist Alice Rose explains: "The men become distraught either because the relationship feels claustrophobic or because their wives no longer want sex. Often it is the woman who is unhappy with the relationship because she claims her husband has greater priorities than spending time with her." [Bonds of Fire: Rekindling Sexual Rapture, p. 34]

Some become driven to cheat to dispel the tension from unconscious memories which begin rising due to the intimacy or the "togetherness" of their relationship. Before marriage they had been able to leave the other's presence, after a date, to recuperate, to repair their defenses, but the marriage with its continual proximity, for those, often becomes an overload of intimacy.

This can happen to varying degrees and in different ways. With minimal repressed pain and strong defenses a couple's love and closeness with each other can deepen. But many partners who did not have an loving positive relationship with their parents can sabotage their marriages. They do not realize what is happening. They become more distant and unsharing in their thoughts and feelings, and as a result, they ruin the relationship with their spouse who only expects normal intimacy.

I assume that the couples in the study reported in Psychosomatic Medicine were those in "good" marriages. A good marriage is one in which one or both spouses don't have enough repressed pain to sabotage the marriage, or because of good defenses, the dark shadows from the crib have not as yet broken through to consciousness.

The marriage relationship become more burdensome and tedious as innumerable physical and psychological triggers meet with spousal defenses. In such cases, attempts at greater intimacy brings up feelings and memories of relationship deficiencies which each had lacked decades earlier. Both want from the other the good mother or father which they had not had and this truth is behind the lack of satisfaction in the relationship in the present.

The birth of a child can trigger resentful feelings of rejection in the needy father since his wife must now spend less time with him. Some men have a difficult time relating to their wife as a mother. When he thinks of his wife as a mother be begins thinking of his wife as his mother. This does not mean that his wife was not thought of as his mother before she gave birth, it only means that after his wife becomes a mother, those blocked feelings become more powerful and often are more difficult to keep blocked.

Incredibly, homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant and recently pregnant women. See Intimate Partner Homicide and Pregnancy. Breuer and Freud believed that neurotics suffer from reminiscences, but the suffering is mostly endured by the women partners of those who act out. As some of his early mother-related material leak into consciousness the partner may suffer from more neurotic symptoms than heretofore as those memories attempt to become conscious.

There are many examples. A well known one is the case of Elvis Presley. He asked his wife, Priscilla, late in her pregnancy, for a trial separation. He needed time to think he said. His daughter, Lisa Marie, was born two months later.
( )

In a more rational world, the death of a parent of a spouse or the death of one of their children would draw the couple closer but instead such losses can become potent triggers to unresolved traumatic memories. One would expect that the grieving spouses would find some solace being able to rely on each other during such a tragedy. However, the death of a child has resulted in many failed marriages and those are again due to a triggering of very early repressed trauma.

When one spouse concludes that attempts at change have become hopeless, the early childhood feelings of frustration can interfere with the relationship. Indifference and low level depression escalates from pouting and petulance into open anger and hostility.

Dr. Alice Rose writes that the need to escape the "suffocating" (birth feelings) confines of the marital relationship are acted out in adultery, desertion, and divorce.

The sexual relationship in marriage follows a similar course as does the closing up of emotional intimacy in the marriage. The culprits in both spouses, once again, are usually the unconscious memories brought into the marriage. Often these repressed memories arise slowly but sometimes such ascending memories occur during an early stage of marriage and also explains the seemingly incomprehensible behavior of "honeymoon cheating" by a spouse, when on rare occasions, a spouse is driven to unfaithfulness on their honeymoon a result of spousal intimacy bringing forth unconscious memories of repressed early trauma.

For those with few such early emotional issues, love and sex continue to flourish over time. For those with severe repressed trauma, even the post-orgasmic intruding feelings from long ago begin to become uncomfortable. The dissatisfied partner is usually the husband as he looks to his wife to provide him with the needs his mother never adequately supplied. But his wife is not his mother; and may not wish to play that codependent role. Instead, she may unconsciously regard him as the good father which she never had and wants to remake her "bad boy" husband into a good father. The success of these unconscious goals are doomed to failure.

But why does the husband have more problems with intimacy than his wife? Rose explains that it is usually the husband who feels trapped since he unconsciously relates the pain of birth with his relationship with women. This has to be so because his very first intimate relationship with a woman, his mother, was a painful one (during birth and in infancy and perhaps both physically and emotionally). He continues to get triggered by all subsequent close relationships with women - the most desirable ones - the ones he especially admires - the ones upon whom he projects his unconscious needs.. After all, as an infant there was no one more desirable than his mother, especially so if he was rejected by her! It is most probable that his choice of a spouse was based on his relationship with his mother.

Orgasm can reduce the level of our defenses and thus has the potential of allowing us access to our early traumas. Unfortunately, for some, an orgasm is followed by an amorphous depressive feeling accompanied by a need to get away from the suffocating feeling with which he becomes enveloped. The normal desire of his spouse for post-coital cuddling is felt by some men as intrusive: "You're not giving me any room"; "I can't breathe; I'm suffocating" "Give me some space; You're too clingy"; I've got to get out." An easy and common defensive escape from these feelings is sleep. Post-coital cuddling is avoided since it can further threaten defenses already lowered by orgasm.

Often the "I've got to get out" feeling is acted upon, and a spouse gets out of the marriage. It works but the relief is only temporary. Once again, it takes some time for the symptoms triggered by the intimacy of a new relationship to rise. But, after the excitement of sex with a new partner becomes dulled, the old buried feelings arise once again to threaten the new relationship. Sexual addiction in marriage is thus explained as the adulterous acts outs, which are just other examples of pseudo-intimacies, escalate into serial escapades or desertion.

Sexual addiction is like drinking seawater when you're thirsty. It doesn't quench the feeling. You can drink and drink and drink, and you're still thirsty because it doesn't satisfy and fufill your real need. The real need in a neurotic marriage is the old repressed needs of the spouse as a baby, and those needs can never be filled - they can only be felt. The cure is to deeply feel the feelings - those early blocked traumas, in their original context, with the original cast of characters.

Morgan, age 5, explains why many men never get married:

-- "It's because they don't want to kiss the bride."


During the birth phase of primal therapy my feelings about cuddling and touch alternated between discomfort and dread of being touched, and greatly wanting such contact. After I reached the last stages of the birth phase of therapy my feelings of wanting to be touched or not was directly related to whether or not I was close to reliving a birth trauma sequence. Even many hours before the birth primal was re-lived in primal therapy, the idea of being held or touched was repulsive. However, immediately after I re-lived deep birth trauma and resolved another micropart of my birth trauma, I become especially open and wanted both holding from and to give holding to a woman - one with whom I felt close.

To my mind, being touched equated to receiving love, but, as explained above, at other times it symbolized fear of physical and emotional pain - the pain of my birth. In therapy, I had felt how, immediately after birth, the only need I had was for rest and recuperation. No breast, no milk, no touch, no thank you. These had no appeal as they would only have reminded me of the touch/torture I had just endured. My only need at that time was for rest.

The roots of birth trauma run deep, as does its excavation. Later as a toddler, after a stumble and fall, I detested being picked up. Any effort at helping me to my feet was met with anger and physical blows directed at my "rescuers." I never understood why I was so angry and resentful at those who came to my assistance. Over forty years after the birth trauma, I had received insight during primal regressions about what caused this angry reaction.

During my early childhood, the discomfort of falling had been a trigger to the unconscious memory of my physical "hurt" during and immediately after birth. The "helping" hands "reminded" me of my condition at birth. At that time who would want to be handled, even for feeding, after being run-through what felt like a meat grinder and which had almost killed me? Rest and recuperation from the ordeal was what had I needed -- not touch! Touch would only serve to remind me of the physical and emotional suffering I had endured and the near-death I had just survived.

The "touch" I received during my birth process when I came close of dying in the birth canal left me with the childhood symptom of claustrophobia. [See Intimations of My Birth: Traveling and Elevator Rides as Primal Triggers]. An adult symptom of hypochrondria developed in young adulthood to which was added, much later in life, an almost completely incapaciting fear of death and dying. [See my story: On the Fear of Death: Dying in the Birth Canal and a friend's story: Claustrophobia and the Fear of Death and Dying ].


Thus our roots of a fear of intimacy can often be traced back to our birth, and incredible as that seems, even before. If our birth was traumatic and involved feelings of dying in the birth canal, we may have an unconscious association of the intimate cuddling with our lover with the early memories of the painful "touch" of birth. The deeper the feeling of intimacy and attraction the more likely these feelings of wanting to separate may be triggered in those whose early uterine development was painful.

The first nine months of inutero life was a close and intimate contact with our mother. To us she was the entire cosmos; her body was all we knew. For some, that first maternal "touch" during our intrauterine development, was painful. This important trauma can become compounded by fetal death-like memories of suffocation, physical pressure and nearly dying during actual birth. The holding and touch between lovers can trigger these unconscious feelings and can explains our needs to get away from the pain being triggered by intimate emotional and physical relationships.

Is it any wonder then, that for some of us, intimacies involving touch and holding can be scary reminders of our past? For those, intimacy is about subjugating or defending against the scary push-pull of feelings which originated in our mother's womb. Intimacy can bring us face to face with the suffocating feelings we had in the womb,or at birth, or when taking that first breath of life as an air breathing being, or even trauma during our gestation. Yet we lick our wounds from the previous painful encounter with emotional closeness as we are all drawn back once again into what psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor describes as "the search for the beloved" in his 1949 book of that title.

Problems with intimacy never exist in isolation. Often parental (mostly maternal) rejection can and does affect our intimacy and relationship problems . These traumas add incrementally to our storehouse of pain. Any interaction which triggers in us unconscious memories of those traumas makes us want to withdraw. Of all the hurts to which we were exposed, birth trauma remains prepotent. Dr. Alice Rose writes: "The core experience of birth is, in my view, why so many are afraid of intimacy. That fear overwhelms and discourages (our) ability to love. Most people who continually squirm away from closeness do not acknowledge the fear. They feel only the call of the wild. They want to be 'free.''' [Rose, op. cit., p. 37]


The problem of masochism is simply one aspect of the bondage of the will by which the schizoid personality is hampered on every side. It is his best attempt at love which is converted into sado-masochism. If he had not struggled to retain a sense of being in loving union with the mother, this would not have happened.

Moreover, unless he attempts to move out of detachment into a loving relationship, he need never encounter his sado-masochistic dynamics at all. But neither dread nor solitariness are places to stay in. Some movement to break out of them into the security of loving and being loved must be attempted. Then it is that the schizoid mechanisms descend like a hellishly contrived suit of armour. So long as he is encased in it, all his struggles to show the intensity of his love and his longing to achieve union are twisted and turned by these armoured joints to produce the opposite, cruelty to the beloved and hurt to himself.

The bondage of the will is nowhere more absolute than in the schizoid personality. The `sympathetic antipathy and antipathetic sympathy' towards every desirable goal leads inexorably to an impasse. To begin to move towards another person in love, incurs, as the goal is approached, a mounting dread which recoils from them and, if the forward movement is persisted in, by a compulsion to attack them.

Just as the attempt by the schizoid person's own volition to cross the abyss of dread reactivates the feeling of destroying and being destroyed which accompanied the original intolerable stress, so the desperate attempt by the paranoid person to cross the abyss of fear into union with the beloved person reactivates the feelings of persecuting and being persecuted, envying and being envied, which belong to the genesis of paranoid reactions.

....In schizoid persons it is not even true that the harder a man tries to love, the nearer he comes to fulfilling the law of love. The contrary is the case. The more he forces himself towards loving, the more the ontological wound he bears opens up painfully, hurting not him alone, but those he intended to love....Their will to love encounters opposition from inner cohorts of antipathy, stronger, more dreadful, and indeed more demonic than in any other type of personality. The self is so at odds with itself that nothing short of death and rebirth into a new and unconditional givenness of relationship is of any avail.

When the unafflicted, 'normal' or even depression-prone person sets out seriously to fulfil the law of love, he may well achieve most of what he sets out to do. It is his radical self-centredness and pride that are the cause of his downfall before God. The afflicted person, by contrast, is in the morally absurd dilemma of desiring the good and delighting in it, but finding 'another law in his members, at war with the law of his mind', which quite overpowers him... The more he struggles in his own strength against this impasse, the further he drives himself into the very faults he most wants to avoid. The more he struggles towards the good, the more evil seems to insinuate itself. To hope for righteousness, even for moral righteousness, as the fruit of earnest moral effort, especially the effort to enter into loving commitment, is for him intrinsically impossible.

There is only one way out of the dilemma, and this involves the substitution of an entirely new set of dynamics for his own. His own will is so split, paradoxical and contrary that nothing short of total replacement will do....

Overcoming the Bondage of the Will

...We must recognise that his will is in bondage now because it was in effect, his mother's will which drove him over the margin of tolerable mental pain to wish for death and annihilation. His mother's will, that is to say his first experience of 'god's will' led him to believe that he was destined to damnation. We must admit that this maternal 'god' in effect willed the destruction and temporal damnation of the baby's spirit. Such people feel themselves to be accursed....

The will is therefore imprisoned in the power of a kind of mother-goddess who wills the destruction of all good life and the damnation of such wretched remnants as survive. (The Hindu goddess Kali is a projection of this destructive mother.) Since the will of the mother-goddess has been declared so plainly it seems to the schizoid person a kind of impiety to will anything to the contrary. There is therefore a compulsion to oppose the will to return into social commitment. The will is exercised always in the direction of opting out.
[Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology: A Theological and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care- (1966) - pps. 838-840].

Other articles on the PPP exploring this subject are:

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