When Emotions Are Physical

Bodywork for Trauma and Grief



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Massage is often associated with spa-like pampering, yet it is also an effective therapy for reducing physical and emotional pain. Bodywork can lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, which in turn helps to balance blood sugar and boost immunity. A surge of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine is also a natural perk of rubdowns.

On the emotional level, massage therapy can offer profound benefits for anyone experiencing acute grief or the effects of a traumatic past. A Swedish study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing shows that bereaved individuals that received 25-minute hand and/or foot massages once a week for eight weeks felt greater comfort and were more capable of coping with stress.

The Body’s Pain Language

When the “fight-or-flight” stress response is activated in the presence of danger or emotional distress, the body has one objective: get us to safety. Yet, many times, the amygdala—the part of the brain that plays a key role in this process—becomes hyper alert and falsely perceives danger when there is none. Trauma becomes hardwired into the nervous system. Pain syndromes and tension are common symptoms.

No matter what the pattern for handling trauma, it takes a lot of work for the body to repress emotions, and it will create tension in the form of “armoring” to defend against unwanted feelings. “Trauma is a physiological experience. Body tension that results from unresolved trauma will not respond to only releasing muscle tension,” explains Lissa Wheeler, author of Engaging Resilience: Heal the Physical Impact of Emotional Trauma: A Guide for Bodywork Practitioners.

Wheeler’s Medford, Massachusetts, practice focuses on releasing emotional patterns locked in tissue memory. “When the nervous system is frozen in a state of threat long after the actual threat is gone, all of the body’s activities of healthy regulation are challenged. This affects not only skeletal muscles, but also smooth muscle such as what’s found in the gastrointestinal tract. Sleep problems and teeth grinding can also result.”

Cellular Memory and CranioSacral Therapy

Swedish massage, Thai massage and shiatsu are all ideal treatments for chronic pain, grief and emotional imprints locked within the body’s cellular consciousness. CranioSacral Therapy (CST) offers a gentler alternative. “CranioSacral Therapy can unravel cellular stories and assist in freeing repressed or preverbal emotions from childhood,” says Seattle-based CST therapist Barbara Coon. “Experiences are held in the body. Stress and muscular tension activate the vagus nerve, and CST focuses on calming [it].”

Like a perfect dance partner, a skilled bodywork practitioner follows the nervous system and helps the client access sources of trauma.
~Lissa Wheeler

The vagus nerve facilitates communication between the brain and the heart, lungs and gut. Coon attests to the modality’s body-centered support for reducing anxiety, depression, panic attacks, memory loss, sleep disturbances and grief.

“Some people respond well to deep tissue work, while others do better with the gentleness of CranioSacral Therapy,” says Wheeler. “Like a perfect dance partner, a skilled bodywork practitioner follows the nervous system and helps the client access sources of trauma.”

Healing Frequencies

ANCH/Shutterstock.comClinical aromatherapy and therapeutic sound can also play a vital role in emotional healing, especially when combined with bodywork. Kelli Passeri, a massage therapist and owner of Sound and Stone Massage, in Pittsburg, Kansas, utilizes a subwoofer speaker beneath her massage table so clients can feel the vibrations of the music. “I play music recorded in specific frequencies that align with the body and the chakras or energy centers to help rebalance the energy body,” says Passeri, who also uses rose quartz crystals in her hot stone sessions. She relies on aromatherapy blends that promote opening on both physical and emotional levels.

Passeri has observed common pain patterns in her clients that often don’t have a physical cause. “The sacrum tends to hold on to lifelong traumatic emotions from childhood, and the shoulders tend to reflect more current emotional blockages and issues,” she says, adding, “I encourage my clients to open up or cry because it’s a healthy thing to do. There’s no need for embarrassment and is totally okay.”

Healing on any level might take time, but allowing the body’s stories to be witnessed without judgement is key. “The good news is that when trauma is worked through, the whole body is much more resilient and has a greater capacity to live life fully,” Wheeler says.


Marlaina Donato authored Multidimensional Aromatherapy and several other books.


This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.

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