“Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” —Mae West
By Cat Saunders
If you attend a lot of group meetings, or if you need a good trick for energizing yourself and others, you might like a technique I call the “Group Stroke.” Even the most stimulating discussions can give way to periods of ebb within the flow.
People eventually get tired or restless, or the topic may be so emotionally charged that people space out and become virtual zombies. It happens to the best of us.
Here’s one solution. First, ask those who are shy about touching to watch the rest of the group for a few minutes, so they can observe before deciding if they’d like to participate. Then ask everyone else to stand up and form one large circle facing the center.
Next, have people turn to the right, so they’re all facing the same direction. At this point, each person should be facing another person’s back. Finally, ask everyone to stroke the back of the person in front of them, using an upward motion. That is, beginning at the waist, gently brush the person’s back in strokes that move toward the neck.
This is not meant to be a massage. If you’re doing it right, it will feel almost effortless. You can make it real easy by using only the tips of your fingers to brush the other person’s back. It’s the upward motion that counts, not the vigor with which you do it. In fact, don’t be vigorous! You’re working with energy, not muscle tissue. Soft, subtle strokes are best.
After a few minutes, tell the group to reverse positions, so the person who was giving the strokes will now receive them. Let people continue for a few minutes again. When it appears that everyone is feeling a little more revitalized, you can see if they’re ready to return to whatever you were doing before. Good luck getting them to stop!
I first learned this technique in the mid-1980s from a man who was teaching a workshop at Unity Church in Seattle. I can’t remember his name, but I remember him talking about the four main ways to stimulate endorphins.
Do you know about endorphins? They’re chemicals that are released from the brain under certain circumstances. Basically, they make you feel good. Endorphins can sometimes generate such powerful feelings of pleasure that they can even block out pain.
The workshop leader said that the four best ways to stimulate endorphins naturally are singing, dancing, laughing, and stroking the back up. Whenever you need a boost, you can experiment with these four methods. If you’re feeling so bad that you can’t bring yourself to laugh, dance, or sing, maybe you can at least ask someone to stroke your back up.
Whenever I introduce the Group Stroke in a workshop, people always laugh because the name sounds a little obscene. Then when they try it, they usually laugh some more simply because it makes them feel good.
When people laugh while stroking each other’s backs, two of the four main natural endorphin stimulators get activated at the same time. If you and your fellow group members are really creative, perhaps you can invent a way to laugh, dance, sing, and stroke each other’s backs simultaneously.
You can do the Group Stroke on a smaller scale with individual friends. Tell them what I just told you about endorphins, and teach them how to do the upward back stroke. As an option, you could surprise your friends by doing it next time you hug each other.
In other words, you can do this technique face-to-face as easily as you do it face-to-back (as previously described for larger groups). Play with each approach, both as the stroker and as the receiver, and find out if you prefer one or the other–or both!
One thing I love about this technique is that you have to ask for help. Unless you’re some kind of contortionist, you can’t brush your own back all the way up. Even if you could, the effect is not as stimulating as when someone else does it for you. In addition, the act of asking for help can itself be stimulating, though perhaps in a different way.
Since many people are afraid to ask for help, it’s great to practice doing it by asking for an upward back stroke, because when someone strokes your back, the endorphin rush can smooth away your fears about asking for help. What a bonus!
The trick in asking for help is to keep asking people until you find someone who says yes. It’s important not to expect any one person to satisfy your wants and needs, because that encourages infancy-level dependency, as opposed to adult-to-adult relationships.
What I mean is, if I expect a particular person to satisfy all my requests, then I’m essentially acting like a six-month-old who wants a mother who will take care of her. Needless to say, this is a setup for the replay of old patterns. While it’s certainly okay to ask for what you want, I recommend that you cultivate a spacious heart when you do this, so that you can hear yes or no with equal grace.
Other people have the right to choose whether or not they want to give you what you request of them. Besides, in the case of the Group Stroke, do you really want people to touch you if they don’t want to touch you?
Whether you practice the upward back stroke with just one friend or with a hundred others, I think it’s sweet that nature requires at least two people to activate this natural endorphin stimulator. You can laugh and dance and sing alone, but for this one, you need help. Could this be by design?
This article is a chapter excerpted from Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available at Amazon.com).
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).