Massage and Body Image
Can massage positively affect body image? Massage promotes the development of body awareness. In our digital driven society, our physical self is often preceded by our mental work and accomplishments that meet the eye. We have little time to devote to our physical wellness, but we are encouraged to spend it on “fixing” problems, chasing pain and trying to fit ourselves into an unnatural frame. A massage session is a comfortable opportunity to be present with our bodies as they are today. The act of making time to simply feel good in the skin we are in promotes a holistic awareness of our physical. In addition to manually treating your area of pain or tension, working with your therapist can help you understand and integrate the sensory feedback from your body. “What is this tension that I am experiencing? What makes it better?” The therapist can provide information about how the body is structured and how it functions to help manage the stress and anxiety associated with pain. The therapist is trained to provide a safe judgment-free environment. Over the years, I am finding that these two areas of knowledge and skill are just as important as technical skills to making the work “therapeutic” – beneficial to you in the long term.
In our image captivated society, the prospect of lying partially undressed and being assessed by a near stranger can make anyone feel apprehensive about their first session. Despite initial appearances, massage therapy has been used in wide variety of settings to release negative feelings and associations we hold about our bodies and create an appreciation for the bodies we have. In an anorexia nervosa study, women given massage therapy in addition to standard treatment for 5 weeks reported lower stress and anxiety levels as well as decreases in body dissatisfaction responses. Bodywork is an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves. Can we relate the sensation of “I love how good this feels” back to “I love my body”? Research suggests yes we can. A study done with 49 female university students found that there is a positive link between viewing massage as pleasurable and the student responses from the “Body Areas Satisfaction” survey. Realizing that our body holds the ability to make us feel good and relaxed, gives us a sense of freedom, can make us feel at peace is a powerful catalyst in gaining acceptance of our physical self.
Massage therapists are specifically trained to provide a safe space free of judgement. The practice of physical acceptance is one of the things that attracted me to bodywork when I was a student. In basic anatomy, we learn no matter the shape and size, we are all born with the same number of muscles and bones. (Roughly, the same.. Back in massage school, if you had an extra muscle it was cool!) We are fascinated by how the tissues glide under the skin surface, spots of crunchiness around an old injury, or protective spasm that tells us to lighten up. These are the things we look for. Actually we don’t even look all that much, since our hands are better at seeing what we are looking for and staring into space is better for our necks and posture. Since I graduated school, I worked with many people that, unlike the anatomy textbooks, were not born or no longer have the same number of bones and muscles. It is always the similarities among us that continue to impress me. One of those similarities is our capacity to adapt. Massage is an active form of participating in this adaptation process – the process of healing. And your therapist is trained to let that process be about YOU – not the mirror, scale, X-ray, textbook, diagnosis. What positive thoughts do you want your body to hold on to? The massage table is a great environment to practice healthy body dialogue. The addition of therapeutic touch can increase our ability to experience our bodies in a positive way, restoring trust in our bodies inside and out.
Body image is more than skin deep. Just as we are flooded with messages about how our bodies should look, so are we constantly facing demands and expectations about how our bodies should perform. What if we are not on top of our game? What if the post-surgery rehab is taking too long? What if the other guy is faster? When we get injured, it is never just a sprain, an achy joint or a pulled muscle. It is a cancelled vacation, missed training, time off work, not being able to carry your groceries, and many other things that can cause mental stress and frustration. Just as physical stress can cause mental and emotional tension, so can mental stress get trapped in our bodies affecting our body image. Sometimes in the process, our painful injury becomes a “bad back”, “terrible knees” and “messed up shoulder”. This body dialogue can turn a transient condition into a sticky perception we hold on to about a body part. We cannot control all the negligent jargon that is used to describe our aches and pains. Language such as “dysfunctional”, “bad side”, “malformed”, “disabled” permeates our medical references, the very resources that we use to heal our patients. David Butler PT and Dr. Lorimer Moseley, authors of “Explain Pain”, a widely read reference for health practitioners and anyone who’s ever experienced pain, comment: “These words alone are strong enough to stop you moving properly and they may not be giving you a true indication of what is happening”.
Sometimes, we health practitioners are the biggest influence on the imprint – negative or positive – our patients leave our care with. When we call the non-injured leg “the good leg”, what does that imply about the leg that hurts? Have you ever scheduled a massage to relax, but the therapist kept telling you “Your back is very tight. You have very ugly knots here”. (Yup, felt that! And now I have an image of ugly knots stuck in my shoulder). Even “muscle balance” and “alignment”, the elusive terms we love to throw around, can leave our clients with the feeling that something is wrong, “imbalanced” or “misaligned”, when proper context about how the body functions and adapts is not given. Sure, it is important to look at how we distribute workload, absorb and transmit forces throughout the body. How we move is essential – it is how we interact with the outside world. But, it is a perfectly natural and healthy process to find new ways of moving and adapting to our present circumstances. Sure, there is always room for improvement. It helps to consult and seek help from a practitioner who has resources, skills and access to medicine. Let us also emphasize all the good that our body has already done for us on its own!
Pain (the body’s alarm system), inflammation (protection and first response) and compensation (moving on) are vital processes of our survival mechanism. The authors explain: “Pain protects you, it alerts you to danger. It makes you move differently, think differently and behave differently, which also makes it vital for healing.” Inflammation, responsible for a big chunk of the pain we experience, is the body’s first response and the first stage of injury healing. It isolates and immobilizes the affected area from further damage, floods it with immune cells to fight infection and rebuilding cells to kick off the tissue repair process. Compensation patterns, our bodies moving differently, are necessary to distribute the workload away from the injured area so that it can heal. Compensation is also needed so that we can continue to function and support our livelihood. Knowing that you’re 2-3 steps into your healing progress by the time you see any professional, most certainly by the time you see a massage therapist, can be a big confidence booster to continue with your treatment to recover even better.
Over the years, I have been purging my own vocabulary of negative statements and finding more productive language to explain patterns of pain, tension and function. Our bodies are naturally adaptive and resilient. We have a built-in mechanism to heal and rebuild ourselves. Injured and painful body parts are very strong indeed – they have to work that much harder to do what we ask of them. Injuries are opportunities to become stronger. These aren’t feel good statements alone. These are observations from my practice. I have the privilege of learning about healing from many people facing different circumstances and challenges. The capacity to self-heal, self-preserve and adapt to challenges is a daily occurrence in my office. I am a better practitioner when I align my work with your body’s intention to heal. If you are interested in this topic, “Explain Pain” the book I’ve been referencing throughout this blog, is a wonderful science-based read for understanding pain and healing. The massage room is a great place to restore trust in our bodies and heal from within.
“Massage and Body Image” by Laurie Chance Smith on MassageTherapy.com