Many massage clients and therapists have noticed that strong emotions can come up during a massage therapy session. In this article, we’ll briefly explore why this happens.
One common idea is that massage is “releasing emotions” or “releasing trauma”. This idea is incorrect because it assumes that emotions or trauma are stored in the body when in fact storage is always the domain of the nervous system. It’s never accurate to say that something was stored in the body. And with emotions, it’s not even accurate to say that they are stored. Emotions indeed require a body to exist in the first place, and they certainly have further impacts on the body over time, but they are not “stored”. They are always being generated in response to something (e.g. a thought, memory, or sensation) in the moment.
Having addressed this common notion, we can move on to possible explanations:
- Safety. Probably the simplest explanation for why emotion may be expressed during a massage session is that the client feels safe enough to express feelings that they don’t normally feel safe enough to express in other contexts. Clearly a good massage session should be characterized by having a sense of safety, and a person is allowing themselves to be vulnerable simply by being touched and cared for. For a person who is already feeling sadness, for instance, the addition of a safe and nurturing environment can amplify those feelings.
- Memory activation. The next most intuitive explanation would be that touch received in a particular area might serve to remind the client, consciously or subconsciously, about something with an emotional charge to it. Perhaps the client is reminded of a violent event in the past and might even “relive” the event as if it’s happening in the moment. Or perhaps the client is reminded of something sweet from the past and feels sadness that the person is no longer in their life. In either case its rather straightforward to understand how this might work, and it probably accounts for some of these experiences.
- Unmasking/unwinding. The third possibility is that during the massage the combination of safety and touch leads to the client’s nervous system “letting down its guard” where the guard is in the form of muscle tension and posture. To really get what is meant by this, one must realize that one is capable of blocking awareness of certain feeling by assuming certain body postures. It’s similar to how one might block feelings through alcohol or TV, but since one always has one’s body with them, it’s a convenient way to ensure that one can block those unpleasant feelings all the time. Imagine feeling grief while holding an erect posture with one’s chest out, or imagine feeling anger while assuming a cute and coy posture—both would be much more difficult than just assuming the normal postures for those emotions. This might turn off during sleep but since one is sleeping one doesn’t feel the unpleasant feelings. During massage, these mechanisms can turn off and allow those habitually-masked feelings to emerge. This explanation probably accounts for the majority of these events and while most massage therapists may respond with some degree of skill and compassion, most do not recognize the profundity of what is happening in these moments. These are not common everyday emotions but rather the ones that have been chronically suppressed, often to the degree that the client isn’t even usually aware of them. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important for a massage therapist to be trauma-informed so they can be aware of these dynamics and how to best respond.
Mark Olson, Ph.D., LMT is the director of the Pacific Center for Awareness and Bodywork, a trauma-informed massage school in Kauai that focuses on teaching trauma-informed bodywork. For more information or to sign up, please go to www.awarenessandbodywork.com . $1000 scholarships are available for the first 12 who apply to our massage therapy training through August 31, 2023.