Can a Therapist Hug a Patient?

To answer the question, “Can a therapist hug a patient?” we need to look first at what happens when physical contact between a therapist and a patient is encouraged. In my experience, most physical contact occurs during introductions between therapists and their clients. I believe that this is because physical contact helps a client open up emotionally and mentally to their therapist’s intervention and because it is refreshing for the client to have direct eye contact with the therapist while engaging in these introspection activities.

I remember a time when I entered a rehabilitation center for the very first time as an out patient after having been discharged from a hospital. I was introduced by a male nurse to a rather elderly and frail gentleman who had suffered brain damage in a car accident. The nurse took my hand and led me into his room. While I was standing in the center doorway, the man looked up at me and said, “Can I give you a hug?” I looked puzzled for a moment and then responded, “Oh, no, I am not that tight.”

Immediately following this exchange, the therapist put his arm around the man and held him tightly, telling me not to move. I was taken aback by this abrupt display of physical Contact. Although I had been told I couldn’t get physical with the patient during intake, I could feel the tension in his body. I didn’t know whether to respond with an “of course” or an evasive response of “no” in response to his request for physical contact. I decided on the latter and held the therapist’s arm for what seemed like an eternity. After he loosened his grasp slightly, I told him, “I will give you the room.”

Although I didn’t know whether to respond with an “of course” or an evasive response, I knew I had to honor the request of the patient and therefore, went for it. After giving the patient a little room (not more than is comfortable for both of us) I went back to the waiting area with the other clients. As I was exiting the room, a voice asked me, “You okay?” I returned to the waiting area to find the other patients gathered around the bedside table.

One of the nurses checked in on me and asked, “Is the patient okay?” I answered, “He seems a little tense but otherwise he is fine.” The nurse then motioned for me to go over to the bed and while I was setting up on the bed the patient suddenly grabbed my arm and asked if I could give him a hug. I was startled at myself for reacting so forcefully but responded, “Sure, just give me a sec.”

I responded by offering my hand which he wrapped around my midsection and then went to hug him. I could tell right then that this wasn’t going to work because the patient was going to pull away. I put my arm around him again and repeated, “Give me your hand!” He struggled and then released his grip. I placed my arm around him again and this time did not pull back but instead I allowed him to take a few steps back until I stopped and looked into his eyes as I held his head with one hand which was still around his waist. This was a very intense moment and I will never forget it.

The other therapist that was in the room gave me a look saying, “That must be difficult for you to do. You are not used to that.” I responded by saying, “I am not surprised. It is the first time I have seen physical contact with a client and physically unable to help him. I feel much better now that I have been able to provide physical contact.”

If you have ever encountered this situation then I hope that you will consider this scenario and think about how you might respond. One way to respond would be to pull away and not provide any physical contact at all. However, if you have compassion and desire to help this person then maybe giving some occasional touch may be acceptable. Perhaps you will consider all this in 2021.