Massage therapists often witness emotional release while giving treatments. This emotional release can manifest with distress, tears, shivering and similar physical sensations. Clients often request to stop the massage as they feel a sudden need to be left alone or an urge to exit the room.
When touch is applied, as in during a massage session, the energy of a frozen trauma is given an opportunity to bubble up to the surface. If the body worker is trained to be supportive, the sequels of the trauma might, at least partially, dissolve.
The complexity of emotional release reveals the multidimensionality of a body whose organs communicate through nerves, molecules and energy pathways.
Psychobiology has proven that memory, learning and behavior are influenced by molecules that record information in the brain, imprinting traumatic events. Emotional input also registers in the body through the Autonomic Nervous System and the endocrine system.
“If neurotransmitters and hormones are released into the bloodstream during bodywork,” said author Sandy Fritz, “the individual may once again feel the chemical arousal of an emotion, perhaps triggering a memory.”
Emotional release: Why touch awakens painful memories
Dr. Peter Levine, defines trauma as “an overwhelming experience to which the mind reacts by dissociation and denial; and the body reacts by tensing, bracing, freezing or collapsing.”
Traumatic symptoms stem from a frozen residue of energy that wasn’t resolved or discharged when our rational brains prevailed over our instincts.
Animals bounce back to normal after a traumatic experience, but in humans, the restorative process is frequently impeded and the effects of trauma froze in the body.
The impact of a trauma depends on the quality of the event itself, how threatening it is, as well as the frequency and length. But it also depends on the context and the physical and psychological characteristics of the individual.
Age is a crucial factor as small children are more vulnerable. Depending on previous experiences and inner resources, the individual may either become resilient and gain a capacity to meet danger or could also more readily freeze. External and internal resources equip (or ill-equip) the person facing a trauma.
When a memory is intense an individual may relive a traumatic experience with the same bodily and sensory reactions and feelings. A prolonged or appalling trauma prompts the release of stress hormones that can inhibit or damage the hippocampus and compromise the conscious memories of the event.
Trauma sequels may reveal as somatizations, like physical pain, which is one of the main reasons to seek massage therapy.
Memory is state-bound
A Nobel Prize nominee, Candace Pert, found a neuro-chemical substrate for learning, behavior and memory, which explains how phenomenological experience is “state bound”. In other words, we remember things when we’re back to the mental state in which we learned or experienced them.
Transformational psychologist Peter Shepherd believes we develop defenses—to protect ourselves from perceived threats—that work in layers, one of which is the muscular layer. Muscle tension also protects us from expressing suppressed feelings. With relaxation, these feelings surface and might become overwhelming.
Since infants cannot think in pictures or objects, they have a sensory-motor kinesthetic (muscle memory) representation of information learned. People who suffered traumas in their early childhood are then more likely to experience emotional release elicited by touch.
The body is the mind
In a conventional medical model, body and mind are treated separately; psychotherapists avoid any kind of physical contact to protect a vulnerable patient, while paradoxically, massage therapists—licensed to touch—rarely receive training to deal with emotional release.
During an emotional release, the client might perceive the therapist as a significant caregiver or parental figure. This is known as transference.
If the therapist has unresolved business from her past, her client’s emotional release might prove overwhelming. Countertransference could also lead to playing an inadequate role for the client.
Unable to recognize the unconscious process taking place, the therapist may be unresponsive and unavailable to the person.
If, as Pert proposed, “the body is the mind,” a massage therapist would be trained to establish appropriate boundaries, provide a holding environment and contain the client when the emotional release happens. She’d also be able to refer the client to another health professional.
According to Pert, “the body can and must be healed through the mind, and the mind can and must be healed through the body.”
Therapists using Bioenergetics, Bodynamic, Trager, Craniosacral Therapy, Humanist Psychology, Gestalt Therapy, QiGong, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda using a body-mind approach are ready to face emotional release and they might even purposefully elicit it to promote healing.
Some of the above modalities represent a field that could be called Somatic Psychology or Body Psychotherapy. They’re based on the premise that the body holds the memory of past events.