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The Use of Skillful, Safe, and Appropriate Touch..."

By: Gerald W. Vest, ACSW/LISW/LMT


The Use of Skillful, Safe and Appropriate Touch are Key Components for Family Preservation Practices at New Mexico State University


Gerald W. Vest, ACSW/LISW/LMT


An innovative holistic family health practice course in the School of Social Work at New Mexico State University (NMSU) includes a "15 Minute Stressout Program" and other interventions for promoting family health and well-being.

Learning to appropriately touch is rarely, if ever, a subject for discussion in the home, school or work place. Professional social workers and other allied professions traditionally establish physical boundaries that limit opportunities for participants to learn effective touch in fostering and nurturing relationships in the family. Yet, every mother, social worker or compassionate teacher knows that loving "touch" produces a healing response to a child's physical, mental or emotional distress.

Obviously, there are serious considerations for being circumspect and skillful with offering touch as a conscious intervention in a family environment that involves abuse, neglect and disrespect. On the other hand, we can introduce safe, appropriate and skillful touch as a means for teaching communication and respectful alternatives to violence and stress. While assessing and improving family health, workers, with the family, design a family health plan that includes the whole family in their use of com munication and including touch--physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

The "15 Minute Stressout Program"

The "15 Minute Stressout Program" was designed by me, in cooperation with the NMSU Social Work Department, Health Promotion Team in 1988. This team has been chartered by the Associated Student Organization of NMSU since 1980 and has introduced health promotion practices in industry, military, government, schools and social service organizations throughout the country. From 1988 to the present, the team has presented this method to over 6,000 individuals and numerous families. The approach has been accepted by the US Army at Ft. Bliss as part of its stress management program for soldiers, spouses and civilian personnel. Over 350 workers at the NASA White Sands Test Facility received th is popular health program as part of its Employee Assistance Program and administered by our team members.

The team includes 15-30 skilled workers (students, faculty and staff) each semester and provides weekly sessions for our university community in the Student Center, dorms and offices. Continuing professional education programs for conferences and special events are provided on an on-going basis. Also, a team of social work students, medical staff and faculty are offering this program to patients and their families in a pilot research project developed in a rural health clinic for strengthening family me mbers diagnosed with diabetes.

The "15 Minute Stressout" as a Method

Team members learn to apply a holistic approach to wellness and other forms of skillful touch in our course offerings. However, the "15 Minute Stressout" is a designed program that includes the following:

1) A focus on the breath throughout the experience by giver and receiver of the touch so that emotions are balanced and empathy is sustained;

2) A systematic process of touch is applied that include several techniques: feathering back, shoulders and arms; squeezing arm muscles; stretching and spreading hands; gripping the wrists and fingers; and,

3) Pressure point massage or acupressure points are administered to selected points on the hands, shoulders, back, neck and head;

Participants of this activity commonly reported during our preliminary research: anxiety was reduced, improved sleeping habits, migraine and sinus headaches relieved, improved breathing, less anger, more at ease with self and others and were more relaxed . Also a number of participants identified that they improved their relationship with spouse and/or significant other. Others indicated a reduction in stress, feel more positive about their work, increased creativity and productivity at work.


Family preservation student social workers are now being taught to provide and teach appropriate, safe and skillful touch to families in their homes. As part of a holistic family wellness course, students learn cross-cultural health and healing approaches, family health assessment and stress management.

Our alternative health practices are especially compatible with those provided by sobadores, partera and curanderos that have long been accepted by the populations indigenous to the southwest. We believe that these projects will make a significant contribution to collaborative relationships with our health professions and to the health and well-being of the cultural divergent population in this border state and with our Mexico neighbors.

NOTE: This article appeared in the National Association of Family Based Services Newsletter, Spring 1994, and is reproduced here with permission.



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