Does anyone here bite their fingernails? Ok, I’ll admit, I do. I bite my nails. It’s not something I’m proud of. But I’d bet my last meditation cushion that most of you do this too sometimes. I also pick at my fingers when I’m concentrating on something or lost in thought. And if you know me well enough, you also know it got me thinking. Why do we do this? I pondered this a bit (probably while picking my nails) and then a picture appeared in my mind of many of my trauma patients, who sit across from me in our therapy sessions. They often sit uncomfortably wringing their hands so hard that their fingers and knuckles turn white and red. Many hold little stress balls in their hands, those plastic balls with pointy knobs all over it. Or they wear a special ring on their finger that feel prickly, almost painfully so. This helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma disorders to bring themselves back to the here-and-now, and away from their intrusive and anxiety-ridden thoughts and feelings. It helps to ground them back into the present moment. It’s not just trauma patients who use these little helpers. Many businesspeople have stress balls or other centering anchors in their office. Or, think about how often you find yourself playing with a strand of hair, your pen or the zipper of your jacket, touching your face or feeling the fabric of your clothes while at a meeting, thinking about something, or even just commuting on public transportation? Even small children have their lovey’s, their cuddle blankets, often holding them to their faces, rubbing the soft fabric on their cheeks.
Why do we fidget?
Why do we do these things? All of these so-called grounding behaviors engage our sense of touch. Our sense of touch is one of the most underrated senses, says psychologist Martin Arvidsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, whose research team found that human beings perceive even smaller changes in various surfaces than previously believed. Yet we are hardly conscious of our keen sense of touch. We feel so many different surfaces throughout our day without even being aware of them. Yet, we obviously use our sense of touch to calm and ground ourselves when we feel anxious, stressed or bored. Often this also occurs without us being aware of it.
Stress makes us want to touch stuff.
There have been many studies out there about why we bite our nails, pick our fingers, or perform other so-called body-focused repetitive tics. Generally, we believe we have these tics as a result of stress. Of course, it is common knowledge that stress is abundant and on the rise. The American Institute of Stress reports that 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms of stress. The Mental Health UK shows that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over that past year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. It’s not a secret that the digitalized world has greatly contributed to our stress levels. We are constantly accessible to others. We can receive and send emails, text messages, phone calls and video calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We have unlimited access to information. This has made the world and global business a smaller, faster, more efficient place, but it also comes with several negative side effects. Our brains are bombarded with information and stimulation. In addition, we have much less relaxation and recovery time from stress. Our bodies carry stress hormones that have no chance to dissipate and return to their normal, healthy levels. Another reason for this is that we tend to spend much more time in front of screens and much less time outdoors, in nature. Our ancestors not only spent more time outdoors, they also had much more access to natural materials in their everyday lives. Thanks to the invention of plastics, many nature-based products and packaging have been replaced with synthetic materials, such as plastic and polyester. Our ancestors had a deeper grasp of their sense of touch than we do. Our sense of touch has been increasingly neglected over the years. No wonder we need to touch stuff (tactile sensing) when we feel stressed!
Science says touching things is healthy!
On a more scientific note, a new theory put forth and recently supported by Sarah Roberts and other researchers at University of Quebec at Montreal claims that we have these behaviors to help us balance out our emotions. When we feel overstimulated (anxious, nervous, stressed) we bite our nails, wring our fingers, etc. When we feel understimulated (bored), we do the same. In essence, fidgeting with something helps balance our emotions. Several studies have been conducted on the concept of “grounding”, which refers to the direct skin contact with the surface of the Earth, such as walking barefoot or touching our hands with natural materials from the Earth. Multi-disciplinary research has found the electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth produces positive effects on physiology and health, for example, a reduction in inflammation, improved immune responses, wound healing, as well as the prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases (Oschman, Chevalier, & Brown, 2015). Furthermore, the Journal of Environmental and Public Health published a summary of studies showing that grounding appears to improve sleep, reduce pain, reduce stress among other health benefits.
Engaging our sense of touch in meditation
Interestingly, most current meditation practices focus attention on the breath, on sounds, on mantras, or on observing thoughts. Yet, most do not include touch. Although meditation at its roots, originating as early as 1500 BC in ancient Taoist and Indian Buddhist traditions, has a long history of using objects made of natural materials, such as beads, worry stones, or baoding spheres. For some reason this practice has fallen by the wayside. However, using our sense of touch could be very helpful, especially to beginning meditators. Finding stillness of thought in meditation can be difficult, and abstract. Someone well versed in meditation can practice meditation in the middle of a crowded subway commute, while most will struggle even in the comfort of our own homes. Considering how helpful grounding through our sense of touch can be to our physical bodies and psyche, why don’t we use our sense of touch in our meditation practice? Engaging our sense of touch opens an entire palette of sensations to explore with our mindful awareness. Tactile meditation is less abstract, more tangible, and can be extremely effective in achieving concentration and taking our attention off of our anxious thoughts. Using our sense of touch during meditation can hone our attention in a more palpable way (no pun intended!). So how do we do this? We work towards finding, enhancing, and diversifying our touch sensations to help us with our meditation and mindfulness practice. Holding, for example, a small object that offers different textures to feel and focus your attention on can be extremely helpful to not only learn meditation but to sharpen your meditation practice, even if you have been able to achieve thought stillness. Adding a tactile component to your meditation practice can really enhance your ability to stay with the meditation, focus your attention, and provide extra objects of attention to focus on. I’ve found a new thing on the market that provides this tactile component for my meditation and mindfulness practice. It is called Toucheys, and they are little cubes that you can hold in your hand while meditating. They look like this:
Each side has a different natural texture on it. Being a long-time meditator, I’ve found it has helped add a new layer to my own mindfulness practice and has not only been really helpful in deepening my meditation practice but is also incredibly satisfying! Way more satisfying than biting my nails. Ahem..