Clinical Psychology and Massage Therapy

by: Boris Prilutsky

The human body is a complex system that demands the “body and mind as one” approach when considering aspects of its functions and overall health. Due to constant stress, various emotional complexes, psychological, and/or physical trauma many people are developing anxieties, clinical depression and other psychological disturbances. A good clinical psychologist will listen to the patient, analyze the psychological aspects, and in many cases can help their clients by allowing them to realize the actual cause of the anxiety and/or teach them different techniques and ways to manage the condition. However in many cases psychoanalysis alone is not sufficient in helping people getting rid of anxieties. Massage Therapy has proven to be an extremely effective means in the treatment of anxiety and many other psychological disturbances.

The importance of Incorporation of Massage Therapy and Psychoanalysis

In order to understand the importance of incorporating massage in the treatment of psychological disturbances, let’s analyze the clinical expression of anxiety attack. Signs such as higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, respiratory rate, etc. always signify anxiety attacks. Frequently experiencing anxiety episodes (episodes of high blood pressure) will cause a lowering of the threshold level of the baroreceptors.

Baroreceptors can be found within arterial vessels and they determine vasoconstrictions or vasodilations. The level of their sensitivity determines how quickly and easily the external worry, irritation or trauma can manifest itself in an anxiety attack. In other words, people whose threshold is high can withstand a considerable amount of external psychological disturbance, without being adversely affected. On the other hand, people with a low threshold are affected more quickly and their nervous system loses stability more easily.

For example, let’s take a person who is suffering from anxiety due to some psychological trauma, and let’s assume that a very experienced clinical psychologist helps the patient to understand the true cause of his anxiety. In this case, psychotherapy can successfully bring the patients to a point where they are able to deal with the mental and emotional aspects of their anxiety. At the same time this patient suffered through numerous repeated anxiety episodes for many years. Consequently, the threshold of his baroreceptors has to be very low. This means that any little amount of worry or irritation (even something as small as being cut off in traffic) can cause a slight rise in blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn can trigger the full physical complex of the mental and emotional phenomena of an anxiety attack.

If the stress signal becomes ignited by the external distraction and is propagated by the nerve receptors to the nerve center, the spontaneous reaction of the body would be to contract the muscles on the blood vessels, which causes a rise in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. The baroreceptor threshold of a healthy person is sufficiently high not to let the stress signal ignite. However, on the person subjected to repeated anxiety attacks, this threshold is low and even small disturbances can cause the distress signal to be ignited along with the negative effects following afterwards.

Massage therapy is scientifically and clinically proven to be an effective means to break this vicious cycle. By repeating full-body stress management treatment sessions we reset the threshold of baroreceptors to a higher level, thereby reducing the possibility of spontaneously triggered episodes of full-fledged anxiety attacks. To a large degree, an anxiety attack is a sympathetic reaction. The phenomena of vasoconstriction, increase of stress hormone production, etc., are fully controlled by the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Repeated massage therapy sessions are proven to be one of the most powerful methods for balancing activities between the divisions of the autonomic nervous system.

This example shows that the physiological and psychological aspects of anxiety should be viewed as one cycle. Given the fact that the body and mind cannot be separated, and the fact that massage therapy provides a valuable way to affect nervous system physiologically/ psychologically, the integration of massage therapy into the treatment of anxiety is a must.

Body Cells Carry Emotional Memory

Attention: Surely, body cells do not contain memory mechanism. It would be reasonable to assume that this emotional memories stored somewhere in brain. This theory was proposed many decades ago due to massive clinical observation of phenomena, and therefore I couldn’t change the name. I was familiarized with this theory while in school. We were taught that scientists who proposed this theory indicated that these memories were stored somewhere in the brain; that the brain kept bookmarks pointing to the particular body parts. When the above referenced body parts are intensively stimulated, they are releasing much-needed damaging emotional memories that could be a barrier for achieving sustained results.

I found the theory that body cells carry emotional memories to be a true one. During my clinical experience, numerous times I have witnessed the emotional reactions of my patients/clients to soft tissue mobilization. To more clearly explain this phenomenon, I would like to share one of my most interesting clinical experiences with you that support the theory of emotional memory being carried body cells.

Over 20 years ago, I treated one of the world-renowned boxers of the time from a shoulder injury. The right shoulder had a severe sprain/strain case with suspicion of possible rotator cuff tear. As with all such cases, after 24 hours of cold application procedures (cold application must be applied no more than 10-15 minutes and must be repeated every two hours) we started intensive massage therapy on the unaffected side in order to awake vasomotor reflex that will express by increasing blood supply to the injured extremities. I began to follow the treatment protocol for the above-mentioned purposes, starting to mobilize all groups of rotator cuff muscles layer by layer, as well as the anterior, posterior, and middle part of the deltoid muscles. As he was receiving the massage therapy, suddenly this big, tough, extremely strong man started crying, vocalizing sounds like that of a little boy. He was confused and expressed his embarrassment at breaking down in tears.

Being familiar with the theory that body cells carry emotional memory, I suggested to him to cry out whatever this emotional memory was. The sport clinical psychologist was informed of the incident. During his evaluation, this professional athlete, with the help of the psychologist, recovered a memory from his deep subconscious of an event that happened to him when he was eight years old.

Briefly, the story was that the boy’s grandfather (his mother’s father) once interrupted the constant fight between the boy’s father and alcoholic mother; his grandfather attacked his father with a hammer. Afterward, the father was delivered in critical condition to the hospital and the grandfather was arrested. During this period of time, the little boy future boxing champion fell, off his bicycle and hurt his left shoulder. Crying, he came to his mom who was screaming into the phone, and asked her to comfort him because of the pain in his shoulder. His mother reacted in anger, and took his pleas as just whining for attention and she hit him with the phone a few times on this painful shoulder. All these years, on a subconscious level, this man carried difficult baggage of these memories of events related to losing the most important people in his life; his grandfather and father; and related to rejection by his mother. This kind of crying, emotional release tremendously helped this athlete to get rid of this subconscious trauma. This heavy emotional baggage was terribly disturbing and robbed him of a lot of happiness all these years, without him even knowing it existed. My experience has taught me that usually these emotional releases happen with people at the time when we perform massage (including deep tissue mobilization) in the inhibitory regime. Please be aware that emotional release may not be expressed by crying. Many clients may report to you that they have trouble sleeping and experience worry, or they may start shaking during the massage. Some of them will report unusual emotional sensitivity. Please explain to your clients that all above-mentioned reactions are very positive reactions and within the next few days of going through these reactions, they will feel a great deal better. Regarding the boxer whose case I presented to you, he later reported to me that he never thought that this subconscious baggage could destroy the quality and happiness of his life so much. He told me that thanks to this innocent massage therapy on the healthy shoulder, he was able to find peace within himself.

It’s reasonable to assume that the memory of the emotional experience is stored somewhere in the brain – the organ that is specialized in memory handling and remained inaccessible, as many other memories a human being experiencing during the life. But the shoulder cells hold the bookmark or a memory address of where the actual memories of the incident were stored in the brain. Thus by activating the shoulder cell you triggered the process of loading the content of that remote memory in the active memory, causing the aforementioned reaction.

As you can see from this episode, clinical psychology approach alone wouldn’t be sufficient, because of the emotional memories carried by the cells of his body. Presently, I receive professional referrals from clinical psychologists.

Dear colleagues, I would like to encourage you to contact clinical psychologists in your neighborhoods and to offer them your services to incorporate massage therapy in their treatments. The Latin word “doctor” means educator. After being involved in many cases, it is clear to me that we should educate not only our clients about the power and importance of massage therapy, but also other health care practitioners.

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