Massage Therapy as Emotional Healing

When I started my training at massage school, I was at a difficult intersection in my life. On top of working two jobs and going to school five days a week, I was going through a deeply painful breakup and often felt as though I couldn’t breathe.

Part of our training at the Swedish Institute of Massage was to conduct practice sessions with our classmates and take turns applying techniques and receiving massage. I remember one day in particular when my classmate was working on my pectoral muscles (the ones that connect the sternum and rib cage above your heart). I had been holding so much tension in that area that I immediately began to cry when she put her hand on my chest. It was a totally unexpected emotional release, and was then that I became aware of just how much emotion we store in our bodies.

The benefits of massage are substantial. Massage helps heal physical wounds, speeds recovery from injuries, reduces scar tissue, and improves circulation. It can also heal emotional wounds by bringing attention to the places in our body where we hold on to pain in a caring and non-judgemental way.

In massage school we were taught that if a client has an emotional response on the table, to acknowledge it gently and suggest that they breathe into the area in which they feel the pain. By stretching and directing our breath to the areas in our body that trigger an emotional response, we can bring greater acknowledgement to the way in which our bodies respond to emotional discomfort.

The late self care coach and massage therapist, Kate Bartolotta, perfectly describes how our bodies are like a historical record of our past:

“Everything you’ve experienced is stored in your body at a cellular level… your muscles remember it. They remember it like it happened 10 minutes ago. Your successes hold your shoulders high. Your losses pull your chest inward. You hold your sadness in your throat, your anger in your jaw, and your fear in your belly. Your happiness rises and falls in your chest. Love rolls in and out on the tides of your breath. It’s all there, all the time. You can release the parts that hurt, if you want to. Yoga and massage are the best ways I’ve seen.”

Both personally, and as a licensed massage therapist with over a decade of experience, I’ve seen the sometimes unpredictable ways in which our emotions manifest in our body. Feeling overwhelmed or fatigued can cause you to shrug your shoulders or hold them up to your ears, which can lead to aches and stiffness at the top of the shoulders and upper back. Whereas, clenching your teeth in the night (an indicator of stress and anxiety) can cause jaw pain, neck pain, and headaches.

The good news is that it’s a two way street: emotional distress can influence physical tension, while the relief of physical discomfort can also help ease emotional distress.

Massage therapy can be therapeutic because we often work at the intersection of mind and body. We ease physical pain by working on tension in the body, as well as helping people feel less alone in their pain by staying grounded — witnessing the connection between the mental and physical.

Treating pain can be challenging. You’re often wondering where to even start? How to make sure you’re not doing more harm? How to tell if you’re actually healing? When you stretch or receive a massage, you open up the physical and emotional space in your body to heal. It requires trust and vulnerability — and that fosters growth.

Artwork by: Juliet Romano Design.

Rachel Beider is a business consultant, speaker, educator, licensed massage therapist, and the proud owner of Massage Outpost in Dumbo, Massage Greenpoint, and Massage Williamsburg. Her writing has been published in Forbes and Huffington Post, and she’s been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

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