If I told you that a lot of my clients come to me because they are in pain, they're feeling tight, or they're stressed and need to find a healthy way to cope, it probably wouldn't surprise you, because of course that's why people come to a massage therapist.
However, a lot of people come because they are in emotional pain. People who have lost a parent, or a partner. People whose loved ones are sick, and know that recovery isn't coming. People with a terminal disease who know their own time is limited. People who have survived cancer and have the emotional, chemical, and physical scars to remind them. People who have had relationships disintegrate due to domestic violence. People who were in car accidents that started a downward spiral of physical pain that has completely altered their experience of life. People whose children have gone through life threatening surgeries or injuries. People who have clinical depression and/or anxiety, who are trying to make it through one day at a time, fighting against their bodies' own imbalanced hormones.
Within my practice I have multiple clients that fit each one of those examples. This is not a small minority, and you are not alone.
When I ask why they're here, and what they'd like to focus on, they often start out by reporting one of the massage standards, focusing only on the physical issues they're bringing in, and it's only after more in-depth conversation that their other struggles begin to come out. They too don't always make the connection between massage therapy and their deeper underlying issue.
(Note: Not only does the brain processes emotional pain the same way it processes physical pain, but it takes stress levels and social context into account when creating pain signals and adjusting their "volume," so you better believe that emotional pain will make physical pain worse, and it can even create new pain.)
I'm bringing it up now because, although this has always been an important part of my practice, over the last several months I've been noticing this a lot more, and I want to clarify what massage therapy can do for you if you're experiencing grief, loss, depression, etc., and what it looks like to bring these issues into your session.
Benefits of Massage for Emotional Pain
I'm not going to get too deep into the details of the chemical and hormonal effects of massage and safe touch in this article because I want to focus more on the actual experience. I do want to say, though, massage will not fix any of the above issues or make them go away, but massage can help to balance hormones and lower the stress response to help you better manage and cope during hard times. Not to mention having someone to confide in who you know is on your side can be hugely beneficial.
Boundaries for the Client-Therapist Relationship
Quite often people have a tendency to fall into the routine of surface level pleasantries. I'll say, "How are you doing today?" at the start of a session, and my client will instinctively respond, "Good, how are you?" A little more digging and I'll find out that they are under a huge stress load and they feel like they're struggling to stay afloat.
When you are here, in my practice, I want you to know that it is OK to be 100% honest and vulnerable with me. There is no reason to put up a front or try to impress. Sharing your pain and seeking help is strength, not weakness, and you should be proud that you even made it in today.
Talking out your pain with someone can be a healing process in it's own right, I will always listen. I have had many clients say that they weren't sure how much they should talk and share, since they were here for a massage session. True, I'm not a mental health therapist, so I won't give you advice or try to get to the root of why you feel a particular way, but I will always listen. This can happen at anytime during the session, during the intake conversation, or on the table.
Many people try to hide their tears. Socially, it isn't considered appropriate to cry in public, and we can find it embarrassing. A lot of people even apologize when they cry.
However, crying is a huge part of processing our emotions, an observable link between the inseparable physical, mental, and emotional aspects of ourselves. I have found that I often have to "give permission" to cry before most clients will stop fighting it and just let it out. Sometimes people cry when we're talking, sometimes it's on the table when we're working on a certain area of the body. Either is totally normal and OK, and encouraged if that's what's coming up for you.
When it comes up during the hands-on portion of the visit, sometimes people want me to keep working as they cry. Other times they need me to stop moving, but keep my hands on them. Sometimes they need space until they're ready again. And sometimes they grab my hands and hold them until the tears stop and they can breathe calmly once again. All of these responses are appropriate, as long as you feel safe.
Last but not least: Hugging! Hugging can help us feel safe and secure, reminding us that no matter what struggle we're dealing with, we don't have to deal with it alone. It can raise levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure. There are no shortage of articles about the health benefits of hugging, claiming it boosts your immune system, makes you happier, reduces pain, etc.
All of the above can be true, but only when the hug is wanted. For someone who doesn't want a hug (whether they don't want one now, or they don't want one from that person, or they just don't like hugs), a hug can feel extremely unsettling, violating of personal space, and downright unsafe.
Much how I will never say you have to talk about your emotions, I have made a decision in my practice to never initiate hugs, even when we've hugged before. I have no desire to make anyone who comes in feel less safe and respected, and, although you have come in expecting to be touched, you haven't signed up for a hug, and I won't make assumptions. That being said, much like listening, I will always return hugs when you initiate them, either through action or asking.
By the way, this hugging section is for everyone, not just people with great emotional pain. Some clients hug me because they're excited to be here. Some hug me because they're grateful after the session. Some hug me when we're talking at the beginning or end of a session and they burst into tears. All of these are appropriate and welcomed.
- Emotional pain is processed and experienced similarly to physical pain, and emotional pain can increase the experience of physical pain
- You never have to talk about what you're dealing with, but if you do I will always listen, and you may be surprised how much it helps
- Crying is OK! Crying can be part of your coping process and we can shape your session around it. What better time and place to cry than right before a massage?
- Hugs are totally appropriate if it's what you want. Ask for one or just grab me. I'll hug you back.
(Please note: While massage therapy can be beneficial, it is not a replacement for mental health therapy or medication.)