The numbers are staggering. In the United States, a person is assaulted or beaten by their intimate partner every five seconds, and approximately three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.1 Up to 5 million US children witness incidents of domestic violence each year.2 And every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted; every 8 minutes, that victim is a child.3
When I entered the field of massage and bodywork, I did so with the clear intention to share tools and information with women regarding the body’s innate abilities. My goal in this intention has always been to support women, to empower them, and to play a role in their healing processes. Through my work with the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to support survivors of abuse and violence, as well as participating in research on whole-person healing at Georgetown University, it’s become evident that more and more educators and health-care providers are understanding the value of therapeutic touch for survivors of this kind of trauma. Here’s what you should know.
The Effects of Trauma on the Body
Our nervous system is an electrical communication system that responds to all types of stimuli. When we experience kindness, love, and empathy, for example, our nervous system perceives safety, which in turn signals to our body that it may rest, digest, and restore when needed. On the other hand, when we experience trauma of any kind, our nervous system is swiftly alerted to respond. At that moment, our sympathetic nervous system kicks off a cascade of physiological effects, including the release of cortisol (our stress hormone), shallow breath, increased heart rate, reduced digestion, and general hypervigilance. We are thrown into a state of survival, literally. All energies go to our limbs and tense muscles to help us fight, flee, or freeze. Unfortunately, it’s there that our bodies can get “stuck.”
Psychologist Peter Levine says humans are the only mammals whose “shake” mechanism does not activate automatically, or at all, following a threat or stress. A common example of the shake mechanism is a dog, who will shake literally from head to tail after a threat to their system has been removed. This shaking releases the inertia of stored energy from the peripheral nervous system, thereby allowing energy and impulses to be rerouted and reintegrated back into our central nervous system. When the trauma or threat is gone, we humans tend to remain in a state of high alert versus “shaking it off” like other mammals.
Without the ability to “shake it off,” trauma survivors are left with an incomplete physiological process that can result in ongoing physiological effects, including muscle tension, disrupted sleep cycles, compromised digestion, and increased heart rate.
While we know there are many ways to approach a nervous system that is being held hostage in sympathetic activation—meditation, talk therapy, somatic awareness, movement, nature, artistic expression, and nourishing food—what’s often forgotten from this list is therapeutic touch.
Although receiving massage and bodywork might seem counterintuitive for some trauma survivors, this human contact often works to mend the wounds that can’t be seen. Here are just a few ways massage can help.
1. Physiological Benefits
Massage and bodywork support the parasympathetic nervous system—the system that allows us to rest, digest, and restore our faculties—by providing stimuli that is intentionally present, caring, and safe. By deactivating the central nervous system, massage and bodywork can bring about increased relaxation, an unraveling of muscle tension, deepened breathing, increased circulation, regulated digestion, calming of the hypothalamus and cortisol, and more.
2. Safe Touch
Touch can be a sensitive subject for someone who has experienced assault of any kind. As a massage therapist, I want my clients to understand that we are in complete partnership and that I absolutely support their processes. The goal of bodywork practitioners is to meet all recipients where they are and work from the needs that arise, versus imposing a one-size-fits-all protocol on clients.
With this in mind, therapists work to educate clients about what a bodywork session should look like and emphasize that, as the recipient, clients are in complete control. On a basic level, we let clients know we will check in with them regarding pressure, temperature, etc., when appropriate. Additionally, we encourage clients to let us know when they need anything at all, be it a new position, a blanket, a bathroom break, a change in music, or lighter pressure. Clients need to understand that they are in charge of their session and have full control over what happens to their body, including how, and how much, they will be touched. After surviving a traumatic experience, receiving safe, interpersonal touch can be an important part of the healing journey.
3. Trust of Others
Survivors of abuse often share that it is challenging for them to trust another person’s touch after experiencing assault and trauma. When survivors cross the threshold into a bodywork space, they are taking a step toward trusting another person to ensure the safe touch that each session intends.
The framework of each massage session is solely to support a client’s healing process. While practitioners may bring the therapeutic techniques to the table, it’s the client who has complete agency over everything that will happen during a session. Whether it is a client’s very first official wellness session or one in a long line of self-care experiences, safe, interpersonal touch can offer a breakthrough and shift survivors toward trusting themselves and others again.
4. Empowering Voice
Very often, subordination is a large piece of the puzzle for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. In order to save their lives, clients might have needed to keep quiet and been unable to speak up during the trauma. What happens when clients ask for their needs to be met in a safe, loving space?
In healing bodywork sessions, clients are the authority of their bodies and their experiences. A bodywork session is a safe platform to reclaim their voice and express their needs. It is in this safe space where silence can be broken.
5. Self-Love, Self-Compassion
Finally, it is empowering for survivors to connect the dots between ways in which their bodies and nervous systems might be stuck, versus thinking their bodies are failing them or being unsafe. This shift in perspective made by understanding the body’s physiology and its potentially incomplete response to a past experience can be a huge piece of self-compassion for the body and gratitude for all that it might have endured.
Self-care practices such as massage, stretching, and breath work are vehicles for trauma survivors to connect internally and appreciate the messaging that their bodies might be communicating. These self-care practices offer ways in which clients can listen to, and respond to, their bodies’ needs with love.
Massage and bodywork not only offers innumerable physical benefits for survivors of trauma and abuse, but it also allows survivors a way to reconnect with their bodies and begin to heal the wounds hidden deep within.
For some, experiencing a bodywork session might be their edge—their healthy risk-taking, a reawakening of body memory, and the very first time they are receiving intentional, loving touch solely for their self-care and healing process. Witnessing clients returning to, and reclaiming, their bodies is the utmost honor for me as a massage therapist.
1. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “National Statistics,” accessed March 2017, www.ncadv.org/learn-more/statistics.
2. Childhood Domestic Violence Association, “10 Startling Statistics About Children of Domestic Violence,” accessed March 2017, www.cdv.org/2014/02/10-startling-domestic-violence-statistics-for-children.
3. RAINN, “Statistics,” accessed March 2017, www.rainn.org/statistics.