My passion for working with trauma survivors stems from being a survivor myself. I understand the critical role bodywork has in the healing process. For my personal bodywork I typically receive care from other women LMBTs, which I’ve realized can mean taking some things for granted. While I realize we often see women as somehow naturally more intuitive, any MT could at any time have a trauma survivor on their table. With this in mind, MTs can do certain things to encourage a symbiotic relationship and address the physical pain your client has, all while honoring their emotional reality.
Recently when I received bodywork from a man, I realized that when I describe my history of C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder, not to be confused with PTSD) to women MTs, they are instinctively mindful of using slow and methodical neck work. Fast head rotation, manipulation, or neck stretches cause the muscles to guard. A trauma survivor may have been strangled, punched, slapped, or otherwise abused repeatedly. Any movement that feels similar is going to trigger a guarding response, which we all know is the opposite of our goal as bodyworkers.
I learned to use a sheet and blanket in massage school back in 2001, but let’s unpack the reasoning. When someone experiences PTSD-inducing trauma, their consent is usually disregarded (rape, incest, intimate partner violence, etc.). Having a blanket on the table provides your client additional security, warmth, and the power to decide whether they actually need it. This gives them back their autonomy and dignity, particularly if the sheets are lighter in color. Many women who have experienced physical or sexual violence don’t like feeling as though their nude or nearly nude body can been seen through the sheet; and they should always be the person making that decision. Also, the blanket’s weight reassures their nervous system, delivering a calming effect.
When you have a trauma survivor on your table, pay attention to how their current state of anxiety expresses itself through their body. If they choose to speak, validate their emotional pain; then reassure them that together you will do everything possible to relieve their physical discomfort. Refrain from trite sayings such as “calm down”, “don’t worry”, or the like.
Here’s a brief etymology for you: the old English root of “worry” (wyrgan) originally equated with strangling someone. It progressed to meaning harass, and now we understand it as causing anxiety. Taking a few moments to establish a safe place for your trauma survivor will reinforce your compassion, professionalism, and reputation as a therapist. Remember, your goal is to treat your client’s pain, not give spiritual platitudes or rationalizations.
While it should go without saying, check in for feedback during the session while respecting their space. If you find yourself outside your scope of expertise consider pursuing training so you are better equipped to work with those who have experienced trauma, or refer out to a trauma informed MT and to a mental health professional trained in EMDR, CBT, or other trauma-specific therapies.
If you are a client, what should you do in order to better advocate for yourself with a new – or existing – massage therapist?
Communicate. You as the client must feel comfortable and confident that your therapist is listening to you. If you express a high state of anxiety, only to receive a dismissive “you need to let that go” or similar brush-off, you are hearing – again – that your feelings and life experiences have no validity, as well as knowing you are not emotionally safe in that environment. You might have a visceral desire to engage in physical actions like punching someone’s throat or stomach to defend yourself, which is normal. Instead, you have the right to end the session early, seek another MT (people regularly request referrals on local community FB pages), or tell them their style doesn’t work for you and ask if they can refer you to someone else (I know this one might be difficult to do). Bodywork is a powerful tool for trauma survivors on our path towards recovery; please don’t let a negative experience keep you from experiencing its benefits.