If I could get my trauma therapy done by lying down and receiving massages, I’d definitely do it! Wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Memory reconsolidation – the neurological process that underlies trauma healing – requires activating the memory and then repeatedly introducing corrective information, such as occurs in trauma healing methods like EMDR and PC. Even so, massage therapy may contribute to positive outcome both during and after trauma treatment.
Massage therapy, the manual manipulation of soft body tissue to promote health and well-being, can provide relief from physical, emotional, and mental stress, and decrease levels of depression, anxiety, irritability, and other symptoms associated with trauma exposure (Collinge, Kahn, & Soltysik, 2012). Massage therapy has also been found to help clients with PTSD-related dissociation to be more in touch with how certain emotions manifest in physical sensation, and experience comfort and safety in their body (Price, 2005).
Massage is particularly relevant to trauma treatment because traumatized individuals often suffer from hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance. In a state of stress and tension, their muscles may be constricted, and their bodies flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone that can be harmful with long-term exposure. Massage therapy has been shown to decrease cortisol levels while increasing hormones (serotonin and dopamine) associated with elevated mood (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Diego, Schanberg, & Kuhn, 2005). Massage therapy can also help to increase circulation, relieve some physical pain, and relax tensed muscles (Price, 2005). This relaxation can enable traumatized people to let go of their fight or flight stress response and attain a calmer state of being, which can be helpful both in therapy and in navigating daily life (Hatayama, Kitamura, Tamura, Nagano, & Ohnuki, 2008).
It is important to find a massage therapist who is trauma-informed and practices consent-based body work, to mitigate the risk of a client feeling out of control of the situation and their body (Frank, 2013). Feeling comfortable while someone is working on your body is important for anyone, and especially for those who have previously been trauma-exposed, and for whom a bad-experience massage could be retraumatizing. Conversely, a good-experience massage can feel nurturing, another potential source of healing.
Massage’s benefits can support the psychotherapy client’s stability between sessions, as well as their ability to tolerate the trauma work during the therapy session. Furthermore, even after successful trauma healing, some people find that their hyper-arousal symptoms persist, and then massage therapy can be used to promote a new habit of calm and self-regulation.
Collinge, W., Kahn, J., & Soltysik, R. (2012). Promoting reintegration of national guard veterans and their partners using a self-directed program of integrative therapies: A pilot study. Military Medicine, 177, 1477-1485.
Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115, 1397-1413. doi:10.1080/00207450590956459
Frank, D. S. (2013). The well-embodied professional: Attitudes around integrating massage therapy & psychotherapy when treating trauma. Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers. Paper 177. http://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/177
Hatayama, T., Kitamura, S., Tamura, C., Nagano, M., & Ohnuki, K. (2008). The facial massage reduced anxiety and negative mood status, and increased sympathetic nervous activity. Biomedical Research, 29, 317-320. doi:10.2220/biomedres.29.317.
Price, C. (2005). Body-oriented therapy in recovery from child sexual abuse: An efficacy study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 11, 46-57.
Note: This post was authored by Ricky Greenwald, PsyD and Izzy Lederman.