Using Bodywork to Manage and Treat Posttraumatic Stress

By Jo Sahlin, Massagetique Correspondent
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Any traumatic incident has the potential to cause both mental and physical harm. The extent of damage often depends on the incident. After a fall, for instance, someone may have a fairly quick psychological recovery but experience lower back pain for decades. A car accident may also have lasting effects, from flashbacks to recurring migraines that last years after the accident. Other trauma, such as childhood bullying, may not have direct physical implications but lead to long-lasting posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Even in cases such as these, the experience alone, and the later impact of PTSD, can often result in co-occurring physical health issues and pain.

Many types of bodywork work not only to treat the physical symptoms resulting from PTSD, but also to address the underlying psychological issues present as a result of a traumatic event. Massage alone has been proven to decrease cortisol levels, which are especially associated with high stress, depression, immune conditions, and the aftereffects of abuse. Receiving massage can also increase serotonin and dopamine—the “feel-good” chemicals often inhibited by mental health issues such as depression and PTSD.

If you have been diagnosed with PTSD or you have experienced trauma, you may benefit from incorporating bodywork into your healing process, after consulting with a psychotherapist and your primary care provider. In addition to massage therapy, any of the following bodywork modalities may be helpful as you work to overcome trauma and PTSD:

Craniosacral Therapy for PTSD

A therapist trained in craniosacral therapy might use this method to ease physical stress from trauma when tension continues to be held in the neck and head muscles. Craniosacral therapy is a gentle method that focuses on the skull and neck to disperse the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. This treatment can be especially beneficial for the relief of headaches or migraines, but it can target pain anywhere in the body. By alleviating pressure on the spinal cord, craniosacral therapy can also improve brain function, lower stress, and may even help decrease emotional difficulties.

Aromatherapy after Trauma

Scents can trigger intense emotional reactions—both positive and negative—and for many people, they also have the power to instantly alter mood and attitude. Aromatherapy, used either in conjunction with touch massage or on its own, may reduce anxiety and many other symptoms of PTSD. A 2016 review of studies performed on the use of complementary therapies to treat posttraumatic stress found that lavender and chamomile essential oils, in particular, promote calmness and relaxation. One study revealed lavender could decrease side effects of PTSD such as sleep problems, depression, anxiety, agitation, and somatic ailments. These plants may be used in tea or in essential oil form, either in a topical solution with a carrier of coconut oil or in a diffuser.

Unlocking the Unconscious with the Rosen Method

“The mind is very literal, while the body speaks the emotional truth,” writes Marion Rosen in her book Rosen Method Bodywork. “Through our bodies we can become aware of, and undo, a learning process that is detrimental to our health and well-being.” Focusing on both breath and movement in addition to healing touch, the Rosen Method recognizes the body-mind connection and is often used in conjunction with psychotherapy. A combination of psychodynamic short-term therapy and Rosen Method Bodywork can be extremely effective for improving overall quality of life, relationships with partners, and general health and well-being in individuals who have experienced mental health issues and chronic pain, according to a 2007 study.

Jin Shin Do Mind-Body Techniques and Trauma

Jin Shin Do therapy unites Chinese medicine and Western psychology by bringing together concepts of energy pathways in the body and emotion-related tension. The more tension we hold—whether it results from daily stress, pain, trauma, depression, or any number of other factors—the more the body’s internal energy flow is suppressed. We may harbor muscular tension related to an emotional experience, even months or years after the event. The Jin Shin Do modality can help by facilitating increased relaxation, body awareness and a “letting go” of built-up psychological and physical “armor” from the past. Treatment involves activating pressure points on the body while using simple verbal cues or very basic talk therapy to stimulate a healing mind-body response.

EMDR as Bodywork

While not strictly classified as a bodywork modality, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) applies a somatic or physiological approach to healing through traditional psychotherapy. EMDR works to detach emotional responses and triggers from traumatic memories by using rapid eye movement. The client follows the practitioner’s fingers or moving dots on a light bar while thinking about a painful memory attached to their current distress or PTSD. After repeating this process several times, the memory is likely to carry less emotion and often begins to be seen as fact rather than trauma. EMDR is still being researched, and while this approach may not work for everyone, those interested in approaching trauma from a physiological approach may find EMDR treatment helpful. A trained and licensed psychotherapist must administer EMDR. Additionally, EMDR is not a contact therapy and should not incorporate massage or other touch.

The above modalities are not recommended for acute physical pain or severe emotional distress. Most are recommended for use as complementary approaches, in combination with traditional healing massage, psychotherapy, or both. Some people who have experienced extreme physical trauma, such as military combat, sexual assault, or domestic violence, may find it difficult at first to receive touch as a form of therapy. Before considering massage or other bodywork for the treatment of PTSD, it is a good idea to to consult with your doctor and psychotherapist.

References:

  1. Allison, N. (1999). The illustrated encyclopedia of body-mind disciplines, 94-95, 169, 188-190. New York City, NY: Rosen Publishing Group.
  2. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10), 1397-1413. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
  3. Meeks, J. A. and Byrami, S. (2016). A systematic review of complimentary therapies to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress: Disorder in the aftermath of domestic abuse. Senior Honors Projects. 243. Retrieved from http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/243
  4. Rosen, M. (2003). Rosen method bodywork: Accessing the unconscious through touch, 27. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  5. Ventegodt, S., Thegler, S., Andreasen, T., Struve, F., Enevoldsen, L., Bassaine, L., & Merrick, J. (2007). Clinical holistic medicine (mindful, short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy complemented with bodywork) in the treatment of experienced physical illness and chronic pain. The Scientific World Journal, 7, 310-316. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17334622

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