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Massage the Trauma Out of My Body!

A tube of toothpaste on a white surface with a beige background. Some of the blue toothpaste has been squeezed out of the tube.
Trauma Toothpaste fights joy, relaxation, and optimism!

"I store my stress in my neck and shoulders."

"My trauma is stored in my hips." "Can you find the trauma in my body and massage it out?"

I must say, I am so grateful for the change in discussion about trauma. When I was growing up I don't think we really had language in common parlance for trauma, traumatic experiences, and the pain we were living in. Instead we had criticism and shame and a ton of pressure to hide the things that hurt us, that were still hurting us. Today, trauma has become almost a pop-culture buzz word which, on the one hand is great because people are casting a light on the impacts of trauma and just how many of us are dealing with it. On the other hand... it's become a rather slippery slope towards misunderstanding. Metaphors have been taken literally by the public at large leading to beliefs like the one's above.

Truly I wish it was as simple as massaging or exercising your body in a certain way that would squeeze the yuck out like a tube of orange flavoured toothpaste (blech!). Would that I could, my friend, but the truth isn't that simple.

The idea of trauma being stored in your body, I think, was popularized by Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps The Score. I haven't read it, actually. It was too graphic for me in the opening chapter and while I appreciate his rage about the mistreatment and neglect of veterans and other survivors of traumatic experiences, I haven't been able to get past that first bit. Further, I've read a lot of research and other academic resources on trauma and have since put the books down. It is on my bookshelf though and one day... one day... but I digress. This book and other books, speakers, and influencers that have followed have jumped on this idea that trauma and emotions are stored in your body and what may have been a metaphor has been understood as a literal rule.

In a literal mind, this might look like a reservoir of fear that is trapped in the muscles of your neck and shoulders, or your rage being stored in your psoas, just waiting for you to make a wrong move (or a right one, I suppose) for those feelings to be unleashed, or that memory triggered or whatever it is. But that's not really how it works.

When you are out and about in the world, your nervous system is picking up all the information it can to understand what things in the world are sustaining, pleasurable, threatening, painful, interesting, useful, beautiful, etc. In other words, learning what is required to survive and thrive. This process of learning does form physical neural connections in your nervous system which extends throughout your body. From this learning, behaviours emerge that are intended to move us towards what the nervous system has coded as "safe, life sustaining" and away from what has been coded as "dangerous, threatening."

So what does this have to do with your body? Because many of us are noticing that when we have more stress, more anxiety, more depression, certain parts of our bodies feel certain ways. Is this the trauma living in my bones? Not quite, or at least it's not how I have come to understand it. I think it has to do with behavioural patterns that are part of the neuronal adaptations our nervous systems developed in response to whatever we have grown up with.

In an article about connections between TMJD and anxiety I read recently it talked about jaw clenching as a suppressive behaviour used to cope with or "clamp down on" the unpleasant bodily feelings related to anxiety. Literally the jaw clenching is a behaviour used to keep the big uncomfortable feelings from getting any bigger, a survival strategy your nervous system developed to cope with something awful and enduring. If we extrapolate from this, it makes sense that we are doing the same thing when we hunch our shoulders, squeeze our fists, or clench our bellies. We are using the muscular efforts of our bodies to control and contain the uncomfortable feelings inside out bodies so we can push through.

For people with chronic mental health problems like depression and anxiety, folks living really stressful lifestyles, or people who have the ghosts of traumatic pasts haunting them, our bodies become a tool to control something that feels like it could end up controlling us. Clenching our muscles can be a way to keep some control, to resist the thing happening inside. We use our bodies to contain and compartmentalize overwhelming feelings, suppress them, so we can attend to other demands in our lives. This can become habitual as we prioritize our day-to-day and ignore or push down our big uncomfortable feelings. This, I presume, contributes to postural and movement habits that can lead to certain body areas feeling tense, tight, sore, achy, or numb. And when we notice a connection between these feelings in our muscles, and the discomfort or high stress, anxiety, or depression, it seems appropriate to say "I store my stress in my - - -." In reality, you are USING the muscles of your - - - to endure what feels threatening.

So what can massage do? Well first, if you are dealing with a lot of mental health symptoms like anxiety, traumatic intrusions, or depression, talking with your doctor for medical support and seeking a psychotherapist is an important place to start. Much of trauma recovery is mentally processing what happened and that is in the scope of mental health professionals like Registered Psychotherapists. There may be things you need to talk about, a story you need a witness for, chemistry in your body you need support for, and stressors in your life you need to address. Dealing with what causes the distress is a vital piece of the recovery plan and massage therapy just can not do that for you.

The role massage therapy can play here, as an adjunct to the above, is not to squeeze out the bad stuff, but rather to help your body soften a bit and address you muscles, joints and fascial tissues that have become bound up with tension. Reducing pain can go a very long way towards improving sleep, decreasing stress-load, and improving movement quality, all of which can generally help us feel better. It can show us that our bodies are capable of enjoyment and pleasure, and with time put in to cultivating a solid therapeutic relationship, that trust is possible even when we are vulnerable. It can also give us a touch point in the world that is safe, quality-of-life improving, and pleasant which I think we can all of us always use just a bit more of.

If you're struggling with persistent stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma, and you can feel the impacts of it physically, massage therapy can be a useful way to address the consequences of physically bracing yourself against the turmoil within. In turn, by decreasing some of this physical tension and resistance, it may become easier to settle, relax a bit, and perhaps even be present with the difficult feelings while working with a psychotherapist. The difficult feelings will still come up -- it's part of being human and alive -- but your body can learn to release the tension and let things flow. Massage therapy can be part of that recovery.

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