About half way through my massage training, I was practicing abdominal massage on my partner when she burst out laughing. I checked to make sure I wasn’t tickling her and we began to work through her stomach again, but she kept laughing until she was in tears. An instructor came over to calm her down and explain that she was having an emotional release. Most people who receive massage regularly report feeling relief, a sense of peace or increased relaxation. However, some people may also experience a sudden rush of powerful emotion while receiving bodywork. Whether it is grief, euphoria, anger, fear or sadness, the phenomenon is known as an emotional release. Since that day in school, I have only encountered an emotional release in my career a handful of times, but if you have ever become emotional on the massage table, you should know that you are not alone.
The short explanation for emotional release is that because massage may access the soft tissues of the body deeply, that it can unlock emotional energy locked in those tissue. To understand how emotion can be accessed through the tissue, you will first need to be familiar with body memory. Body memory refers to an interesting capacity of the mind to remember past events when prompted by certain stimuli from the peripheral nervous system. You may have had the experience of suddenly remembering helping your grandmother bake cookies when you smell a particular bakery. Indeed, smell is one of the senses most strongly associated with long-term memory. However, there are other sensory experiences that can also evoke a strong memory.
The three body senses most often associated with body memory are proprioception, touch, and nociception. Proprioception refers to our sensation of our bodies in relation to spatial orientation and gravity. Whenever you close your eyes and touch your nose with your fingertip you are using proprioception. Special nerve fibers in your muscles and joints are constantly sending information to your brain about how much weight they are supporting, how far they are stretched or shortened, and how much pressure they feel. Your brain uses the combination of all that data to tell your mind where your hand is in relation to your head. The sense of touch registers gross pressure, and finer nuances like texture. Nociception is the stimulation of pain receptors in the body due to damage from extreme heat, chemical or mechanical sources. Together these sensations give us the overall feeling of an experience such as the feel of wind rushing through our hair or the sensation of straining to cross a finish line in a race.
Well, just as a fragrance can call to mind a memory, the right set of body sensations can also bring up memories. This capacity is known as body memory. Consider the following example to illustrate how body memory can lead to an emotional response. A client of mine had been in a violent car accident wherein her vehicle was t-boned and spun into a guard rail. She can remember the sounds and the eerie slow-motion sights of turning to see the oncoming car. However, her body sense receptors were also recording the entire event. Her proprioceptive sense noted the feeling of turning to her left; her nociceptors recorded the jarring pain of the impact, and her touch receptors could feel the pressure of the seatbelt. So, when she felt a similar pressure down on her left shoulder while her head was turned to the left during a massage, her body was sending sensations to her brain that caused her to “remember” the accident. Actually, as happens with many body memories, she did not consciously remember the accident. Rather, she has a sudden rush of emotion with no rational understanding of its source. What she reported feeling was a sudden sense of dread approaching panic. Luckily, she was able to tell about the sense of fear and we could work through it. We were able to deduce that it was the similarity of the position that triggered her subconscious mind to re-experience the accident.
Not all body memories that surface on a massage table are negative or so intense. Some people may find that they simply have a vague feeling with an emotional charge. Often during a massage, when we relax we may zone out or enter a trance-like state where our conscious mind wanders. When a body memory arises, we don’t notice right away and therefore have no idea where it came from. Some massage therapists learn to work specifically with body memory to intentionally create emotional releases. This form of therapy is known as somato-emotional release. However, even therapists who are not trained in this special technique learn the basics of emotional release so that they can recognize when one comes up and help the client to return to the present moment. If you find yourself suddenly feeling a powerful emotion on the table, don’t be afraid to let your therapist know. The experience of such emotion does not mean you are going crazy, but might simply be a form of body memory arising as emotion.