UPDATED June 2015
Many scholars believe that pain and trauma are incidents prevented from being completed. These can be single damaging events such as a car accident, continuous bombardments requiring emotional defenses, or over-training of isolated muscles that lock the body into a recognized pattern. Traumas can be considered anything that keep us locked in a physical, emotional, behavioral or mental habit. Recovery from trauma is the process of the body finding balance and freeing itself from constraints. All too often, the recovery process is halted, preventing the traumatic occurrence from completing.
There are many reasons traumatic incidents cannot be completed, creating stagnation and causing a cascade of physiological protective mechanisms to separate the trauma from affecting everyday functioning. Because our bodies and emotions can only safely handle a limited amount of stress, trauma results whenever an experience exceeds our abilities to handle and cope with its consequences. The energy of the trauma is stored in our bodies’ tissues (primarily muscles and fascia) until it can be released. This stored trauma typically leads to pain and progressively erodes a body’s health.
Emotions are the vehicles the body relies on to find balance after a trauma. Feelings represent the accumulation of incomplete events and the body’s attempt to complete them. By strengthening our inner resources, we are capable of processing these feelings, releasing stored traumas, and increasing our ability to handle stress with greater ease.
When trauma occurs, our bodies activate a protective mechanism. A stressor that is too much for a person to handle overloads the nervous system, stopping the trauma from processing. This overload halts the body in its instinctive fight or flight response, causing the traumatic energy to be stored in the surrounding muscles, organs and connective tissue. Whenever we store trauma in our tissue, our brain disconnects from that part of the body to block the experience, preventing the recall of the traumatic memory. Any area of our body that our brain is disconnected from won’t be able stay healthy or heal itself. The predictable effect of stored trauma is degeneration and disease.
Memory Beyond the Brain
There is ample scientific evidence proving memory storage in locations other than the brain abound. Three examples of the body containing extraordinary memory capabilities are:
- Immune system response is enhanced by memory T-cells maintaining information about previous attacks by specific foreign antigens.
- Muscle memory improves the ability of top class sports people and musicians to perform optimally even under extreme pressure.
- Genetic research has demonstrated that the matrix composing our body’s cells (DNA) possess a complex information storage system.
When considering the vastness of our body’s intelligence, it is no wonder that our muscles and fascia are capable of holding memories.
Three things are necessary for the body to release stored trauma:
- The inner resources to handle the experience that were not in place when the experience originally occurred.
- Space for the traumatic energy to go when released. Being full of tension and stress does not allow space for the stored trauma to move into.
- Reconnection of the brain with the area of the body where the trauma is stored.
Combining bodywork with verbal therapy can successfully bring a trauma to completion. Many types of verbal therapy are ideal for the development of a person’s inner resources for handling a traumatic experience. Certain bodywork styles effectively reduce stress and tension levels making room for release as well as function to reconnect the brain with the stored trauma.
Bodyworkers play a key role in bridging locked memories with the physical body. The techniques known as myofascial release or myofascial unwinding are hands-on methods for initiating traumatic memory release. Myofascial work locates and physically frees the restrictions in muscle and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories. As a skilled therapist holds and unwinds these tissue tensions, memories may surface and release, causing the body to spontaneously “replay” body movements associated with the memory of the trauma. This release initiates relaxation, unlocking the frozen components of the nervous system. Such a shift marks the reconnection of the brain with the tissue housing the trauma, allowing transformation and healing to ensue.
PTSD and Combat Veterans
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of combat veterans returning home that are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is diagnosed when one has experienced, witnessed or felt threatened by a traumatic event, experienced the signs and symptoms of PTSD after the event for more than one month and are demonstrating avoidance behaviors evading anything or anyone who reminds them of the event(s). Many returning service men and women are suffering the symptoms of PTSD which also include an inability to feel positive emotions, emotional numbing, a sense of hopelessness, lack of interest, memory problems, relationship problems, angry and aggressive outbursts, guilt and shame, and hypervigilance (always on guard). Symptoms also include distressing memories, bad dreams, flashbacks and emotional distress.
It is not unusual for these veterans to be easily startled or frightened, and even lapse into a “flashback” event under the right set of conditions. PTSD symptoms can vary over time and become intensified when the person experiences a “trigger”. Because this condition is so closely associated with anxiety – and in fact anxiety is a symptom of it – massage is an excellent method for relaxation. However, many of these combat veterans experience physical stress when touched, or upon waking up and therefore massage therapy can just as easily become a PTSD trigger. It is important that you discuss PTSD symptoms with the client who suffers from this condition to learn their triggers and ways to avoid them. It may be as simple as softly telling the client when you are moving to the next body area or leaving more lights on in the room. The client may be dealing with severe anxiety and feel the need to watch you as you work. They may need every ambient noise identified throughout the session. The range of symptoms and emotional stressors and triggers can vary greatly.
Many PTSD sufferers turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate, which can become problematic. There are many viable options available as treatment for PTSD including cognitive and exposure therapies, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications.
Bodyworkers utilizing myofascial release techniques practice within the illuminating space between physical and emotional health. While developing the emotional resources to cope with a traumatic experience is best reserved for those specifically trained in verbal therapy, bodyworkers can effectively fill the gap of total health in traumatic recovery. As psychological counseling is beyond the scope of practice for most massage therapists, it is recommended to practice release techniques with a client who has sought, or is currently seeking support from a mental health professional. Meeting all three of the components necessary for unlocking and healing from stored trauma combines the work between client, mental health professional and bodyworker. With this holistic approach, traumatic events can go to completion, allowing the body to once again find balance.
Learn more about the Scientific Foundations of Integrative Medicine