Body Awareness

It’s a common story:

A client comes in for a session and says he wants me to work on his neck and shoulders. That’s where the pain is, he tells me. I begin the massage by focusing on these areas, warming up and loosening the muscles. But when the client flips onto his stomach, I take note of his mid and low back. Just the look of these areas tells me that his muscles are tight. I touch them briefly – yep, they definitely need to be massaged.

I have a quick moment of self-doubt: My client didn’t mention his back at all – maybe it doesn’t hurt? He seemed very sure of where his problem areas were; should I really second-guess his claims? But my instinct wins out and I spend a fair amount of time massaging his back.

And it pays off. After the session my client says, “Wow, I had no idea my back was so tight until you started massaging it.”

Or replace “back” with arms, neck, legs, gluts, anything. This interaction happens all the time. But why does it happen so much? Do people really not know where they hurt?

The short answer is yes. The body (rather, the brain) is great at habituating to pain or ignoring it altogether. This is a great skill – for survival. Severe, constant pain can be crippling, there’s no denying that. For some, being able to focus their attention away from the pain might be the only way to get through the day.

But on the flip side of the coin, not paying attention to what’s going on in your body lessens your awareness. If you don’t notice that your leg hurts after you bump into a table, you won’t think to put ice on it. If you don’t realize that you hunch your shoulders in stressful situations, you won’t bother trying to loosen them up.

Your body awareness also accounts for a big part of your body image, or how you see yourself. If you aren’t aware of your body’s shape, or its aches and movements, there’s no way for you to feel truly connected to it. Lacking a firm grasp of what your body looks like and feels like is thought to be one of the underlying factors in eating disorders.

To bring this whole concept back to massage: Touch is hugely important in developing a positive self-image and maintaining body awareness. In both massage research and developmental psychology research, this fact holds true (the article linked above cites a number of studies).

In the end, finding a comfortable attitude towards your body means being neither hyperaware of every discomfort nor completely oblivious to the most basic things. Sure, sometimes your tension will take you by surprise, but knowing your body well enough to know when it needs help – a massage, a doctor, a nap – means that you’re taking active steps towards a healthier life.

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