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This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed.
For most of us, the idea of letting someone take a look at our hands to gain insights into our emotional and physical well-being brings palmists (AKA hand readers) to mind.
However, there’s another group of experts who may study your hands to make more evidence-based conclusions about your mental and physical well-being: therapists. Very few people notice it, but looking at your hands is a significant element of a therapist’s healing power.
A therapist learns a lot about your health just by looking at your hands, from detecting underlying medical issues to identifying the side effects of antipsychotic medication. Hands can also help your therapist decipher your non-verbal cues, which they can then use to get you to open up more.
Keep reading for more details on why your therapist keeps looking at your hands.
Examining Hands Can Help Detect Parkison’s Disease
To the untrained eye, hands don’t tell much about a person’s medical condition. But to therapists, they can help detect a wide range of medical conditions that include Parkison’s Disease. While some of the early signs and symptoms of Parkison’s Disease manifest in other parts of your body, things like limb stiffness and tremor can be detected by a therapist through hand examination.
Usually, you’d be able to detect limb stiffness because this isn’t something that often happens in younger people (and by young, we mean 50 and below). But since Parkinson’s mostly affects people in an age group (above 60) where this is a usual occurrence, it can be hard to differentiate between when stiffness is a false alarm and when it spells trouble, hence the need for a trained eye.
Parkison’s-related limb stiffness is usually accompanied by bradykinesia (AKA slow movement), and the two occur when the neurons tasked with controlling movement get compromised. To determine whether this is an indicator of Parkinson’s or a false alarm, a therapist may study the nature of movement in your hands and other limbs. If it’s uncoordinated and jerky, Parkison’s may be involved.
Essential tremor is the other symptom of Parkison’s Disease that a therapist may detect by looking at your hands. This usually manifests in the form of slight, rhythmic shaking or twitching of a hand, finger, or foot. More specific to hands, Parkison’s-related tremor may also involve “pill-rolling,” a motion where the patient looks like they’re trying to roll a small round object between their index finger and thumb.
By looking at your hands, a therapist can determine whether the tremor you’re experiencing is an indicator of Parkinson’s or caused by something else such as genetics or age. Hand tremors are typical in people aged over 40, and they don’t always mean you have a severe medical condition.
Examining Hands Can Help Diagnose the Side Effects of Antipsychotic Medication
Antipsychotic medication often comes with several side effects that are usually more pronounced in elderly patients. While these effects might take several forms, abnormal movement (formally known as Dyskinesias) is perhaps the most common and can be detected by examining hands, among other body parts.
Some of the abnormal movements caused by antipsychotic medication may resemble those triggered by Parkison’s Disease. For instance, pill-rolling tremor is a common side effect of such medication and can vary from barely noticeable movement to chronic shaking that can make coordination difficult. Since this movement often affects hands, it could be one reason why your therapist keeps looking at them.
However, looking at your hands is just a small part of diagnosing the side effects of antipsychotic medication. Your therapist may also perform a full-body examination because antipsychotics may also cause other neuromotor side effects such as Tardive Dyskinesia, Akathisia, Dystonia, and Parkison’ s-like symptoms.
Many of these side effects involve abnormal movements in various parts of the body, such as the mouth and face, the respiratory system, neck, arms, and eyes. So while you might only notice your therapist looking at your hands, it could be part of a more extensive full-body examination, especially if you’ve used antipsychotics in the recent past.
Looking at Hands Helps Therapists Decipher Nonverbal Cues
Nonverbal cues are an essential element of all social interactions, leave alone the one with your therapist. Without things like facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, or tone, most of what you say to other people would easily be misunderstood.
Research agrees with this line of thought, too.
According to a 2010 literature review that sought to investigate the importance of nonverbal communication in psychotherapy, 60 to 65% of interpersonal communication happens nonverbally. You can say a lot with your body without even opening your mouth, and sometimes it can be the only thing you say when uncomfortable thoughts or situations are involved.
As such, it’s essential that your therapist picks up on nonverbal cues in each session. Through these, they may detect inconsistencies between what your mouth and body are saying, which is critical to unearthing what you feel and think. Nonverbal cues help paint a complete picture of your emotional state, which your therapist can then use to devise an appropriate approach to treatment.
But just how much can a therapist learn about you by looking at your hands during a session?
A lot, as it turns out:
- Trembling fingers or biting nails when talking about something/someone can be a sign of fear or anxiety.
- Clenching your fist or clutching on furniture or edges of clothing can indicate anger.
- Fidgeting hands (i.e., playing with nearby items, wringing or twisting) may signify nervousness or anxiety. It can also happen when someone is lying, although this isn’t always the case.
- Rubbing the neck, lap, or head, placing your hands on your head, or playing with your hair can suggest nervousness. These can also be interpreted as self-soothing behavior, which indicates that you’re feeling overwhelmed physically and/or emotionally.
- Holding up a physical barrier (such as a book, handbag, pillow, or anything else that line) may indicate an innate need to block other people out or protect yourself.
- Talking with your hands open and palms at a 45° angle can mean that you are being open and honest.
- Conversing with your hands open and palms down may indicate certainty.
- Keeping your fingers together as your palms face each other may indicate that you see yourself as an expert in the field/topic of discussion.
- Grasping your hands in front of your body may indicate tentativeness or nervousness.
As you can see, your therapist can gather a lot of information about you by just looking at your hands.
Keep in mind that therapists don’t rely only on hand-related nonverbal communication. They usually combine this information with findings from other non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, leg movement, tone, etc. to make a more confident diagnosis.
Looking at Hands Helps Therapists Build a Rapport With Their Patients
As previously discussed, examining hand gestures and movement during a session is part of a therapist’s process of observing their patient’s body movements. When your therapist is familiar with these movements, they can develop an appropriate way of matching them to improve communication and build a rapport.
Subconsciously, when a therapist mirrors their patient’s body movement, the latter feels more comfortable and is more likely to open up during sessions. That’s because people, in general, are more likely to connect on a deeper emotional level with individuals that they perceive as most like themselves.
So if your therapist keeps looking at your hands, chances are they’re trying to learn what you often do with them and “match” that as a means of building a rapport.
As we’ve seen throughout this discussion, a therapist may look at your hands for reasons that may range from diagnosing a severe medical condition to building a rapport with you.
Keep in mind that it can also happen also because you move your hands a lot when expressing yourself, which draws the therapist’s attention to that part of your body. But most of the time, a therapist looks at your hands because they’re convinced there’s something relevant being demonstrated there.
Either way, the best way to find a definitive answer would be to ask your therapist.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD, holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.
- Quora: Why do Therapists Look at our Hands the Most?
- Good Therapy: What Is Your Client’s Body Language Telling You?
- NCBI Gov: Recognizing and Managing Antipsychotic Drug Treatment Side Effects in the Elderly
- Rxisk: Side Effects of Antipsychotics
- Psychology Today: Your Hand Gestures Are Speaking For You
- Psychology Today: Why Do We Like People Who Are Similar to Us?
- Natural Health Courses: Body Language and How it Relates to Therapy