Touch. We come into this world being touched, and we hopefully can leave being touched. Whatever our experiences in this life, touch is usually involved in some form.
Each time we are touched, the emotions related to that touch are stored in our mind and in our body's tissues. We not only store the emotions of pleasure and happiness, but also stress and fear. These stored experiences show up in bad posture, aches and pains or, when we're fortunate, healthy, functioning muscles and joints. Just as it takes the use of more muscles to frown than to smile, the effort it takes to tuck away experiences or feelings we'd rather forget can cause fatigue and painful tension.
When you receive a massage, the muscles and tissues release on an emotional level in much the same way they release physical tension. This letting go manifests in many forms -- an audible sigh, laughter, muscle twitching or even tears. the In the safe, nurturing space of a therapy room, people are able to let down their defenses, making these kinds of emotional releases a common occurrence.
"Crying is a pretty normal response," says C.G. Funk, branch director at the Utah College of Massage Therapy, Arizona campus. It can be about something in particular, or about nothing at all. "It can come from a variety of things, including having work done on a part of the body where the person holds the memory of emotional or physical trauma. Of course, physical trauma has an emotional component, too."
Massage also allows the body to let go of stress. "It may be that the client has had a stressed-out year, or month, or several months and all the stress is built up," says Funk. In some cases, the body may be holding the memory of a trauma long forgotten. When your body finally relaxes, that memory can surface as you become more connected to being in your body. There may be tears or some other expression as your body releases and lets go of these emotions.
Flashbacks that occur during massage are a part of this same memory mechanism, according to psychotherapist P.K. Hawk, formerly of the East-West Health Center in Denver, Colorado. "If a certain area of the body is being touched in a similar way to what the trauma was, it can actually feel as if they're repeating the trauma," said Hawk.
Massage therapists are accustomed to these emotional expressions from their clients and have been trained to help you feel safe and supported when overwhelmed by these events. If this happens to you during a massage session, and you feel too uncomfortable to continue, just let the therapist know. The two of you can decide how to proceed next.
Remember that emotional release during bodywork is not unusual and is actually a natural and beneficial part of the cleansing, rejuvenating process of massage. After a few moments, you may choose to continue the massage, or request the therapist work more slowly or only on certain areas. But if you decide not to go on, that's okay, too.
"It's important for clients to know they can stop the session at any time," says Hawk. "A lot of people aren't sure they have the ability to say 'no' or stop. If the emotion continues, if they continue to struggle with it or it turns into depression or anxiety, they should seek help." The guidance of a counselor or psychologist can be helpful in working through the emotions.
Hawk recommends that in cases where a client knows touch is discomforting to them, or is currently working through an emotional crisis, it is best to talk with your therapist beforehand.
Massage is a healing touch that relaxes and releases. Welcome that release, accept it as your body's way of finding balance and leading you to a higher state of health, both emotionally and physically. If you find yourself on the massage table laughing or crying, you are in a true state of body-mind connection. Go with the experience. Relax, breathe deeply and allow your body and mind to free itself of the past.
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2002.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.