Healing Trauma with Massage
A synthesis of my experience healing via massage. May it help you in your healing journey.
First, here’s a definition of “trauma” that I like, from Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands1:
Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival. Trauma is also not an event. Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event — or a series of events — that it perceives as potentially dangerous. This perception may be accurate, inaccurate, or entirely imaginary. In the aftermath of highly stressful or traumatic situations, our soul nerve and lizard brain may embed a reflexive trauma response in our bodies. This happens at lightning speed.
An embedded trauma response can manifest as fight, flee, or freeze — or as some combination of constriction, pain, fear, dread, anxiety, unpleasant (and/or sometimes pleasant) thoughts, reactive behaviors, or other sensations and experiences. This trauma then gets stuck in the body — and stays stuck there until it is addressed.
Finding a therapist
Stephanie Hurlburt once tweeted about how this can be tricky because people use many different words for it: somatic therapy, body work, trauma-informed massage/physical therapy. The massage therapist (MT) you’re looking for may or may not have “trauma-informed” in their bio (mine mentions trauma in his).
Like any form of therapy, you will click with some MTs and not others. Someone may be the perfect therapist for your friend but wrong for you. You’re not looking to release trauma in your first session. You’re looking for someone who seems to intuitively understand and work with your body. I highly recommend finding someone who is versed in energy bodies, apart from traditional massage education. Above all else, you want to feel safe and comfortable with them. Again, this will almost certainly take time to develop, but if anything feels off in your early sessions, that’s not the therapist for you. This goes for the massage center as well — the whole environment matters. You should feel an intuitive comfort in the room, in the center generally. I gravitate toward male therapists, as I am seeking strength and larger hands.2 The other side of this is that it takes significantly longer for my body to feel safe with a male therapist. It depends on the therapist, but my body seems to start settling in after four to six sessions. It’s an incredibly intimate experience that can’t be rushed. Earlier than that, I can feel my body staying alert because of my physical vulnerability: I’m face-down and nude, with an unknown man touching me and blocking my path to the door. (With female therapists, on the other hand, I’ve felt safe almost immediately.) If you have an intuitive sense for your gender preference, follow it.
I have plenty of tension stored all throughout my body. Often our default postures and movements are full of tension, and in holding those positions we train our bodies to store tension there long-term. I have had work done all over my body but the following areas are most notable:
My low back was starting to get very damaged from a combination of desk work, long car drives, and tense posture, by which I mean holding a seated position with tense back muscles for long periods. My most tense muscles, as identified by various therapists and healers: erector spinae, psoas, and QL.
My current massage therapist recommended psoas work based on the condition of my back. I highly recommend this but not in a first session — it is a very vulnerable area3 and trust needs to be in place first. You lie on your back, sheeted from the waist down (and for those of us with breasts, a towel draped across your chest). For me, psoas work feels different from other tender areas — it feels crampy. I recently had psoas work done and for the rest of the day, for the second time in living memory, I experienced a connection to my gut. (The first time was in an energy session with Hanjo.) Not only a brain-gut connection, but easier energy movement all throughout my body, thanks to this newly opened central bridge. No wonder there were so many days where my legs felt energetically asleep…
My shoulders carry a lot of tension. It’s easy to create this without realizing it when you spend a lot of time at the keyboard or writing by hand. In a recent session, during which I was especially tuned into my body, I noticed that fear was coming up when my shoulders, upper chest, and upper back were getting work. In the past I had assumed this was fear of pain from the massage, but other tender areas don’t produce fear for me. It makes perfect sense that fear would be stored here, when you think about the tendency to shrink your head into your shoulders, tense up, and cower when frightened.
I just had jaw work done for the first time. I have been a jaw-clencher for years.4 Apparently the most effective technique for jaw work involves using one finger inside the mouth and a second along the same muscle outside the mouth. Some MTs will do this for you with a finger glove. The work I had was all external and very effective. I was energetically open that day and it was fascinating to witness energy movement all the way down to my right leg during the jaw work. (It’s worth noting that after the jaw we started psoas work, and I immediately noticed an instinct to tense my jaw and shoulders against the pain. So this is why I’m a jaw clencher… it’s one of my default “tense against pain and discomfort” catchers.)
The art of getting massaged
I am discovering that this is an art in and of itself. At its worst, a deep-tissue massage is a painful experience with limited (or bad) results. At its best, it is an energetic dance between client and therapist, seeker and shaman. As the healer works, it is your job to make space for that work to land.
You can’t think your way into this. The trust and connection have to be there. A few sessions ago, I noticed I was still held back a bit by awkwardness/nervousness. There was also some resistance to letting go into pain. You might experiment with your diet and pre-massage routine to help here. I find that getting massaged early in the day, on an empty stomach, with no caffeine beforehand, works well for me. I also consumed 5mg edible marijuana before two sessions and those sessions were both breakthroughs for me. (Obviously YMMV here — that substance helps me connect to my body and transmute pain. Find what works for you. I probably won’t use weed again in the near future, now that it’s broken down those barriers.)
During the session, you want to breathe into the specific area that is being worked on. If you are tensing up, nothing will move. If you don’t feel safe, nothing will move. Kassandra often points out that stretching only improves flexibility when you are relaxing and breathing into a pose. Our muscles need to know that we are safe in order to become more flexible, or in this case release tension/trauma.
I’ve never tried it, but some people use visualizations. White light entering your body through the top of your head may be an effective one for you.
Stuff will likely come up in your work. Emotions, thoughts, memories. Some of it you’ll be ready to work through, some of it you won’t. Listen to your body and communicate frequently to the therapist when you need less, more, or something different. Sounds may want to come out. This is why you work with someone who’s well-versed in trauma; they need to hold space for your release, in whatever awkward form. You may whimper, cry, twitch, etc.
Experiment with the right amount of pain. For a while I basically never asked for less pressure. More pain, more gain, right? (Probably some ego stuff involved as well, around being able to ‘take it.’) I’m experimenting a lot with my edge now. Almost inherent to pain is fear (probably of the pain continuing/increasing). So if you’re getting really painful work, and doing the very natural thing of feeling a fear response or tensing against it, you probably won’t release much. Work on your ability to ‘make friends’ with pain, welcome it, maybe even transmute it. Find the right level of pain by constantly tuning the pressure level with your MT. Find your edge: the amount of pain that you can work with lovingly.
Pelvic floor PT
I saw a pelvic floor physical therapist for about ten sessions last year. My GP recommended it based on a medical issue I was having in that region; she also said “I think all women should do pelvic floor PT.” That sold it for me. I found the practice through my gynecologist.
The therapist did myofascial release, both internally and externally. I don’t remember feeling a big difference from our sessions (but I was also much less in tune with my body then). She identified a lot of tension in my abdominal region and pelvic floor and was satisfied with the progress we made over a few months.
So I don’t have a strong recommendation here one way or the other. I never developed the sort of connection with her that I have with my current MT, but I did feel safe and comfortable with her.
Once I found the right therapist, I quickly realized this was the best thing I was doing for my health. I started going for 90-minute massages every 2-3 weeks. Obviously this is expensive. And I realize now that more important than the frequency of the sessions is getting the most out of each session and reducing new tension buildup. This means working with your energy body and posture in everyday life. This was my cycle:
Over and over. Now that I’m learning how to position my body in a relaxed way and move energy where it wants to move, I am creating far less new tension that will need to be worked out. So my MT and I will be able to work on releasing older, longer-held, deeper tension/trauma in future sessions.
This is a traditional Chinese medicine practice of muscle-scraping. After a few sessions, my MT started incorporating gua sha for my back, shoulders, neck, and triceps. The results for my low back were groundbreaking. There are all kinds of tools out there; the one we use is stainless steel.
People seem to like lacrosse balls and foam rollers. I prefer a cork ball. I’ve heard great things about massage guns and that they’re getting less expensive. Tons of YouTube videos for safely self-massaging any muscle.
If you are intrigued by what I’ve said about energy work and want a place to start, try a Zoom session with Hanjo, or any other energy worker who resonates for you. Corey Hess comes highly recommended by a trusted source and I hope to work with him in the future. Yoga nidra is another option and can be done alone at home for free. It’s done lying still, eyes closed, in bed, on a yoga mat, etc. I like the sessions I’ve found on Insight Timer. There’s also plenty of free YN content on YouTube.
Shoutout to Marra for the rec :)
Of course you can also find these traits in women and non-binary people.
Sexual trauma and fear are often stored here. (Any area can be vulnerable for you, based on your personal history, but I would guess that this is a commonly vulnerable one.)
Mouthguards can relieve the symptom but don’t address the root cause.