Physical and Emotional

It’s easy to picture how massage can help with physical stress. Physical activity uses the muscles; the muscles become overworked or tired; they develop adhesions and trigger points. Simple. Depending on the cause of the physical ailment (low back pain from working every day in a kitchen versus suddenly tripping and twisting an ankle), massage might fix the problem in one session or take several months to put things back in order. Likewise, it also depends on how much the client is invested in recovery. If a client injures his shoulder doing an activity but continues doing this same activity during treatment, the shoulder may take longer to heal than if he made some adjustments to limit recurring strain. Healing works best when the client is an active participant in the process.

How massage can help with emotional stress, though, is harder to gauge. Massage increases relaxation and decreases the production of stress hormones, but what else can it do? It depends, really, because everyone handles stress differently. Some people don’t hold stress in their bodies at all – they’re the rare and lucky ones. But most people hold stress somewhere, most commonly in the neck and shoulders.

Alright, so emotional stress can cause muscle tension. And what’s the best way to alleviate muscle tension? Yet again, massage is a huge help.

But particularly intense situations – such as the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one – can be draining on the whole self. A whole build-up of emotions can be manifested physically, and without any direct cause the entire body just winds up aching. Can massage help in these cases also?

I had a client who was coming to see me every week for debilitating shoulder and back pain. After a few months of progress, emotional stress came back into her life to an alarming degree. She’d come to the sessions completely frazzled; maybe she’d relax a little during the massage, but as soon as she left my office everything was back to where it was before. No amount of massage was going to fix her physical ailments until she could get everything else under control. We both decided it was best for her to seek treatment from a mental health therapist before coming back to see me.

Just like with a physical injury, in which the client needs to make changes in his posture or activities so as not to further aggravate his muscles, a client with emotional stress needs to take care of underlying factors in order to see progress with the physical symptoms. Sometimes this is just a matter of time – time to relax and unwind, which massage can provide – but occasionally it may require some extra support.

But is the line between the emotional and the physical really so clear? I recently had a young client referred to me who had been hospitalized earlier in the year for anxiety. Not only was she anxious, she was also in pain… which made the anxiety worse, which made the pain worse. The cycle was so entrenched that it would have been useless to take care of one symptom while ignoring the other.

There’s a huge overlap between physical and emotional states, much more than Western medicine would have us believe. Sure, the messy emotions are internal sensations, but you can’t hide them completely – not from other people, and especially not from yourself. If you’re upset or stressed or angry, you can’t just keep it inside: your body knows how you feel and will react accordingly. It turned out that the pain my client was experiencing was from a plethora of trigger points in her neck, shoulders and low back, activated by her anxiety but now very much a physical symptom.

In the end, I suppose I just want to emphasize (again!) the usefulness of massage. It has benefits for the physical, the emotional, and the physical/emotional blend that you couldn’t pull apart if you tried. Massage can’t solve everything, but it can do a lot – both by itself and in conjunction with other practices.

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