Therapy of Touch

Recently I was flashing back to my pre-massage therapist days when I would go in for a massage.  I would tell the massage therapist my shoulders were tight, I needed to relax and trusted them to perform their magic.  Seven years and thousands of massages later I realize what a huge opportunity I missed out on.  As a rule, I don’t pay attention to my body or myself.  All my efforts are concentrated on making life better for those around me.  That’s why I need massage; it gives me a chance to remember that I exist as more than the items on my daily to do list.  Had I recognized this I could have mentioned it to my therapist and together we could have done some work that might have helped me to focus on myself somewhere other than on a massage table.  That alone could have made a big difference in managing my anxiety, depression and emotional reactions to everyday life.

Why did it take me 2 years of school and 7 years of practice to figure this out?  One of the biggest challenges is that most of us are so uncomfortable talking about touch.  Our puritanical origins put major emphasis on work ethic and downplay any aspect of pleasure and that has stuck with us through the generations. I’m a prime example of how touch can be such a well-kept secret.  As a massage therapist I enjoy using touch to help my clients manage pain and anxiety and improve body health.  As a person I have a big bubble and am not comfortable with physical contact.  This is hard for people to figure out sometimes; I love to give hugs, but getting hugs is another story unless it’s from someone with whom I am comfortable.  One of my colleagues loves being a massage therapist and runs a successful practice, but doesn’t like touching people.

I don’t want you to miss out on the bigger picture that massage can offer.  Massage is usually always a pleasurable experience.  It can also be a necessary aspect of being a healthy and whole person.  I’m going to remove some of the mystery behind touch to help you have those important conversations with your massage therapist.  Providing insight into how we react to touch and what massage therapists consider when customizing treatments for their clients will help you understand your preferences and options so you can help your massage therapist zero in on what your needs and expectations are.  The most disappointing massage is one in which the client and therapist aren’t on the same page.

Let’s start with the biology of touch.  Positive touch produces hormones like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine and serotonin are “feel good hormones” that help us to feel relaxed and happy.  Oxytocin increases feelings of bonding and is one of the major hormones produced by new mothers and people in the early stages of relationships.  Negative touch produces hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which contribute to emotions like fear and aggression.    Positive touch is the only kind that belongs in a massage room, however I do want to point out touch can be intended as positive and received as negative.  People who have experienced traumatic situations such as abuse may have certain areas that serve to trigger those negative memories.  I have clients who have been physically abused in the past and are particular about how I work on their neck muscles.  Touch therapy can be a fantastic option for recovering from trauma, but you and your massage therapist need to have a detailed discussion about the best approach if that is your goal.

Pacing and pressure of touch can have a dramatic impact on results.  A slow, gentle pace produces more “feel good hormones” and improves relaxation and rest.  A fast, energetic pace increases the production of adrenaline and wakes and motivates.  Gentle pressure can feel supportive and stabilizing.  Deep pressure can feel productive, depending on how it’s applied.  Deep pressure applied with full contact of the hands is calming.  Deep pressure applied with a fingertip or elbow is more intense and perceived as productive in the “no pain, no gain” sense.  I want to stress that massage should never be painful.  There is such a thing as pain (or more accurately discomfort) that feels good.  Too much pressure can damage soft tissue so it is vital that you let your therapist know when discomfort turns to pain.

The biggest thing to keep in mind with touch is that everyone wants to be touched in different ways.  Successful massage therapists have to know a lot about the nuances of touch.  If a therapist isn’t able to understand how their client prefers to be touched it can make or break the client relationship.  The complexity of touch is amped up by the fact that many people don’t understand how they respond to touch.  In general, people tend to ignore touch unless it’s negative which makes it difficult for them to be specific about their expectations and requirements in the massage room.  This means most of us don’t know what we like or don’t like.  That puts the impetus on the massage therapist to help the client figure it out.  Our bodies tend to know what’s going on even when our brains don’t.  The way a person stands and moves can provide powerful insight into their touch preferences.  For example:

  • Military stance of chest out, shoulders back indicates the client values control.  They tend to control their inner world by working to control the outside world and generally see feelings and emotions as something to ignore or repress.  Someone with this posture generally prefers a deep, specific pressure (i.e. trigger point therapy) and a faster pace because it feels more productive and less luxurious.
  • Rounded shoulders and convex chest indicates this person feels all the feelings.  They tend to be highly sensitive to any kind of input and would like to roll up into a little ball to protect themselves from the loud and unpredictable outside world.  Touch can overwhelm this group easily so a slow pace and gentle pressure is preferred.  It gives the person time to assimilate the new sensory input so the “feel good” hormones can do their job and decrease some of the underlying anxiety this population generally feels.  Holding along the joints and back is a favorite of this group; I have seen and felt chronically tensed muscles release after a minute of two of full pressure on the shoulder blades.
  • Raised shoulders with limited range of motion implies this person “feels the weight of the world on their shoulders”.  This group tends to consist of people who care for others either personally or professionally (children, parents, or employees).  This group can be tricky to figure out.  Some of them may need a slow pace with gentle pressure because they feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities.  Others may need a faster pace with a deep pressure because they are so used to sublimating their feelings and needs in order to care for others they need the mechanisms of touch to wake up their senses.

These are only a few examples of the things that are going on in the back of the therapists’ mind as you settle onto the massage table.  Your initial responses and our observations about your body posture and movement set the stage for your massage.  When we ask how we can help you today and invite you to ask questions or speak up at any time during the massage we mean it!  Massage is both an art and a discipline, one that is mastered best when both the therapist and client commit to open communication.  Even if it’s to say “I have no idea what I want”.  We’re here to help you figure that out, too.  I encourage you to be brave and ask questions about what might be an uncomfortable subject for you.  Be curious.  Ask questions.  The more you communicate to and connect with your therapist, the better your massage will be.

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