By Rosalyn Gilfillan, Remedial Massage Therapist
While I was studying to become a Remedial Massage therapist I became fascinated by the change in another student’s reaction to touch. I had her lying on her back on the table and was practicing an abdominal sequence when she became quite giggly and I thought perhaps I was tickling her. She assured me that she wasn’t ticklish and as I proceeded to continue the massage her giggling was building up to a real belly laugh and then reducing to tears. It was surprising to say the least and I felt that I should try some calm breathing with her to bring her back to her equilibrium again, a technique that proved to be effective. I asked her afterwards if she had expected such a surge of emotion and she said no, that it just came out of nowhere.
Following that I also witnessed emotional changes in more people once I was practicing in a clinical setting, which prompted me to explore the reasons why these sometimes extreme and vulnerable changes were occurring. Most people reported a great sense of relief and peace afterwards and others became embarrassed and apologetic, to which I would remind them that they were in a safe place and it was a completely normal and natural thing to happen.
After some reading on the subject it was apparent that emotional release could be unlocked when accessing the soft tissue of the body through massage/touch. And to understand how this happens you need learn that in fact, soft tissue has memory which can trigger the mind to bring up remembered events from the past like involuntary flashes. And these past memories can resurface prompted by stimuli from the peripheral nervous system. It’s like remembering being in the kitchen with your mum or nanna baking yummy biscuits, or my personal favourite is when I drive close to where I was raised on a dairy farm, I open the car window to smell methane gas in the air (moo poo) and I know I’m home. Or the strange comfort I get when I smell a mixture of cigarette smoke and perfume together, that’s my mum!
It’s well known that smell is strongly associated with your long term memory, and so it begs the question of how other sensory experiences can also evoke strong memories. Whether you experience grief, euphoria, anger, fear or sadness, it can all be bundled into the phenomenon of emotional release. And if it’s happened to you, you are not alone.
Our spatial awareness to weight and gravity is a sensation that can be categorised into body senses that are linked to body memory. These are proprioception, touch, and nociception, all sensations of our body that occur whilst the brain taps into our orientation in space and gravity. We use our proprioception when we close our eyes and touch the tip of our nose. The brain sends information through special nerve fibers in your muscles and joints that are constantly making adjustments in accordance with where you are in space, supporting stretching and shortening muscles and controlling how much pressure there needs to be to find balance. The messages from your brain relay where your hand is in relation to your nose. The sense of touch with the right amount of pressure and finer nuances like texture are registered. Nociception is the pain that is registered due to some kind of body damage, whether that is from a burn, chemicals, or even how our environment affects us.
For example you might recall being in the middle of a cyclone when a fan is blowing on you, or with water being sprayed hard against your skin or when hard objects are hitting you from all directions like involuntary missiles, which might not even be as intense as the real past experience, but can still be enough to trigger that memory. Also, memories of sexual or violent abuse, or war can have a huge physical impact on your body and can be very easily triggered.
When you strain your body to get through something that feels painful or even pleasurable, the body holds that sensation as a recording that gets locked away in the mind and so too does the physical location of where it actually touched you. It requires a great deal of trust and good communication to help someone who has experienced an extreme event in their lives. During a massage treatment a good therapist will go very carefully and slowly, always checking in with the person so that they feel comfortable and can communicate if there are any no go zones. It’s also very important to be reassured that you they are in a safe space and in safe hands. Experienced practitioners understand that even if the person says nothing about how they are feeling, they may notice that the person is fighting to hold back tears for instance, and will gently give them permission to let go and fully experience that emotion.
As more often than not, these situations can sneak up on us without warning during a massage! The person often has no idea what brings it on until they are in the moment. Some can only feel emotion as a vague charge rippling through their body, whilst others go into a trance like state where they really zone out and then the mind wanders. And in that lucid conscious state a memory just pops in and the person has no idea what prompted it.
There are some therapists who specifically do body work to intentionally tap into deep held emotions within their client. It’s called somato-emotional release. And those therapists who are not trained in this technique can also recognise when there is emotional tension and hold space for that person to express that vulnerability for a moment and then help them to return to the present moment. It’s good to talk about it if you want to and it is definitely a healthy way to process an event that may not have been fully dealt with. And no, it doesn’t mean you are crazy. It’s just your amazing mind and body working in unison to allow a buried emotion to bubble up to the surface, which will quite possibly help to give you some closure on an event from your past.
Ros Gilfillan, Remedial Massage Therapist
Rosalyn is an experienced remedial massage therapist who enjoys working with a myriad of people from all backgrounds and ages. Her skills have been developed through treating conditions ranging from muscular, skeletal and postural issues, pre and post sports treatment for athletes and management of pain linked to injury, degenerative conditions and mental health.
Ros has also developed a special interest in working with women through their pregnancy journey and beyond. She considers the incredible changes in a woman’s body that accommodate and nourish the life of baby, to be both magical and a time that should be enjoyed given the right support system.