My last post focused on the physiological feedback loops occurring in the body as a result of traumatic situations, as explained in Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.’s “The Body Keeps the Score.” Essentially, he shows that the world is experienced through a different nervous system after a traumatic event (and this can be any event with lasting consequences; I would bet that every one of us has experienced at least one traumatic event in our lifetime). We are often triggered into sympathetic nervous system activity, or “fight or flight”, by seemingly benign situations, unable to put what is happening into a historical context of past versus present. Trauma sufferers never quite feel safe in the body, as the brain’s “alarm system” is always signaling danger through chronic stress hormone activity. Van Der Kolk puts it best: “Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.” If every time we experience an emotional trigger, we get upset, our hearts race, our breathing becomes shallow and we can’t articulate our fears, it makes it very difficult to make good choices and behave in our own best interests. The question then becomes: how can we pull ourselves out of this disruptive state and realize that we are safe in the present moment?
Over the last thirty years, psychiatry has relied more and more on medication to regulate the post-trauma brain’s activity. Medication can greatly improve our quality of life, but the problem is that we have to keep taking it. The symptoms reappear when we stop taking the medication; it does not actually solve the problem. Talk therapy is another option. This treatment encourages us to name what happened to us, to trust another person enough to be vulnerable in front of them and to have our experiences and feelings recognized, all of which can be very powerful. However, talk therapy alone won’t solve the problem, either, because, after trauma, the rational brain is always hijacked by the nervous system. Nervous system activation ultimately trumps intellectual insight. In order to fully heal from trauma, we need to incorporate our bodies, too. We can befriend our bodies again and use them as a way into the nervous system. We can accomplish this through mindful awareness of our subtle body sensations. When we see that we can make little shifts to these sensations, we can remap our brains to better respond to the present moment. Therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Neurofeedback, Somatic Experiencing and TRE (Tension & Trauma Release Exercises) have consistently produced profound healing with lasting results. My “personal” opinion is that these types of therapies are the best at resolving trauma (see below for resources). Yoga is another excellent way to recalibrate the nervous system, as it encourages the development of interoception and the ability to approach the body with curiosity and acceptance rather than fear. Studies have shown a permanent decrease of PTSD symptoms after only 10 yoga sessions. I have an irrational and inexplicable resistance to doing yoga myself, but I DO recommend it to my clients, as it truly has so many benefits. Ok, so now for my “professional” opinion: let’s talk about massage!
Massage alone will rarely heal trauma, but massage is a wonderful adjunctive therapy for it. One of the most natural ways humans can calm distress is through touch. There are definitely people who enjoy touch less than others, but a significant majority of us find comfort in a rhythmic back rub or in being gently rocked. Skilled touch can affect us on an even deeper level. A stressed person is on constant sensory overload, and one of the most well-documented benefits of massage is its calming effect on the nervous system. Massage puts us into parasympathetic nervous system activity, or “rest and digest”. Brainwave studies using electroencephalograph (EEG) technology show that massage decreases beta activity in the brain (the highest frequency and the most alert state) and increases theta and alpha activity (associated with states of peace and calm). Another benefit of massage is that through nurturing touch, we establish a connection with another person, ameliorating the isolation that can accompany trauma. A massage therapist can impart empathy and a sense of safety through touch, safety being one of the fundamental requirements of trauma healing. As clients, we are in control, and we determine the boundaries of where, how and in which way we are touched. Further, as we allow ourselves to receive touch, we bring awareness to the parts of the body being massaged. In so doing, we are grounding ourselves in our bodies as well as in the present moment, another fundamental tenet of trauma healing. An added benefit of this increase in body awareness is that it invites us to notice where we are holding tension and release it. When emotions are bound up inside of us, the body is tense. As we relax, it becomes more difficult to hold on to negative emotions. In this way, too, we are recalibrating our nervous system.
Finally, to return to the two pathways for perceptive input from my prior post, massage addresses both options for trauma recovery. According to Van Der Kolk, treatment can be based on recalibrating the nervous system or strengthening our mindfulness surrounding body awareness. Massage can provide a powerful support to primary therapies utilizing either treatment protocol, as I have illustrated above. Even if we are not in trauma therapy, many of us have emotional triggers from a past experience and the basics of trauma healing can apply to us: reestablishing ownership of body and mind, having experiences that restore a sense of physical safety and calming physical tensions in the body. These are all benefits of massage therapy!
EMDR: Leslie Larson, LPC leslielarsontherapist.com
Somatic Experiencing: Miranda Jane, mirandajanecounseling.com