Exploring the Psychological Benefits of Massage
By Stephen L. Salter, Psy Most people get a massage in order to relax, perhaps a pleasurable way to unwind after a long work week. Others go to address some physical discomfort or injury. Maybe your lower back aches from sitting too much in front of a computer. Massage can be a sumptuous delight that treats your body's aches and pains.
But it can also be an effective choice of treatment for a number of psychological issues: depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity, and posttraumatic stress, to name a few. After a massage, we may find our spirits have been lifted, or that we've broadened our everyday perspectives. The opportunity is one for self-awareness.
The benefit of massage on mental health is not a surprise if we think about the connection between the mind and body. The body is a miraculous manifestation that gives us direct access to unknown parts of ourselves. The body revealed by posture, muscle contraction, and flexibility demonstrates the sort of armor we use to protect ourselves in a sometimes difficult world. For instance, an individual with depression might tense up or constrict the stomach or back in order to be less vulnerable to particular emotions.
The massage therapist is as much a student of the mind as they are of the body. The massage therapist bears witness to our mounting stresses and vulnerabilities, and helps unblock the passageways that allow us to fully breathe in life. They soothe feelings of angst that cause depression, and prevent us from connecting to our bodies and experiencing joy.
An observant massage therapist need only consult a client's muscles to gain an understanding of their psychology. For instance, some individuals' muscles may come across as more or less penetrable. A hardened collection of back muscles can serve as a force field, making it difficult to reach deeper layers of musculature. Such a force field is simultaneously physical and psychological. Psychologically, it may represent a general distrust or impermeability to others. Granted, such armor can be invaluable in adapting to threatening situations.
If the client is unaware of this "body armor," the therapist has an opportunity to bring it to the their attention. With such awareness, the individual may choose to slowly "disarm" if they are carrying "unnecessary armor." While massaging, the therapist may ask the client to "breathe into it," which encourages the development of a deeper trust. Every point of contact on the body is an opportunity for self-awareness. Psychological healing occurs when we sink into the reality of our bodies.
Technological advances in communication can paradoxically leave many feeling more isolated and alone. When that happens, our life forces may dwindle. We communicate with greater numbers of people, especially online, but it may be less direct contact and interaction. The mind and body become estranged from physical and emotional stimulation. You may then experience feelings of dissociation, depression, or detachment. What is needed is a return to a nurturing touch, both physically and emotionally.
Depression can be seen as an estrangement from a caring world. The sense of being "held" in a massage awakens a feeling of being cared about, as the therapist's focus is a kind of concentrated care for the client. Massage offers an opportunity for learning a different way of being. Your body may begin to realize that you don't have to tense up so much when work gets stressful. If depression is the expectation that you will not receive the connection and nurture that you need, a massage can rattle the rigid sense of isolation. Rigidity then dissolves. It liquefies into the stream of life.