In the U.S. each year, 10 million women and men are victims of domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The hidden nature of domestic violence may make it hard to fathom that an average of nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S., according to the coalition, which also reports a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the U.S., and one in five women have been the victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
When survivors of domestic violence escape their situation, they do so bearing physical and emotional scars. Massage can help.
Physical and Emotional Scars
In an effort to provide domestic violence survivors help on the road to healing, organizations that serve abuse survivors may provide their clients with complementary health care services, including massage therapy.
One such organization is Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center.
Serving a seven-county area in northern Minnesota, Safe Haven provides shelter, education and an array of other services for women who are battered and their children.
Each month, the resource center hosts Wellness Day, which includes free massage sessions for those who have experienced domestic violence.
“Even if an abused woman is able to escape and overcome that abusive relationship, the impact on her physical and emotional health is costly,” said Heather Drees, manager and legal advocacy supervisor at Safe Haven. “They have been continually beaten down and told they are no good both physically and mentally, leaving them with deep wounds.
“Our hope for Wellness Day is that it helps domestic violence victims rejuvenate, start to heal on the inside and out, and begin to feel and see the value they hold,” she continued. “For one day, we try to create a stress-free atmosphere where they can set their everyday struggles aside for a few minutes.”
Along with massage sessions, the monthly Wellness Day at Safe Haven also includes art therapy and medical exams for women’s health, along with salon services, such as haircuts, brow waxing and manicures.
All Wellness Day services are free for Safe Haven clients, and the massage therapy is provided by practitioners who volunteer their time to offer domestic violence survivors help.
“The women love the massage aspect—most of them have never had the opportunity to receive a massage, so it’s a new experience for them,” Drees said. “One woman said it was the best 10 minutes she’s had to herself in years.”
Wellness for Domestic Violence Survivors
In Austin, Texas, an organization called SAFE, which stands for “Stop Abuse for Everyone,” has received similar feedback on the benefits of massage therapy for survivors of domestic abuse.
On the last Wednesday of each month, volunteer practitioners provide 20-minute chair massages at SafePlace, the arm of SAFE that offers emergency shelter, residential services, counseling and more for those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
The seated massage happens at the resource center of SafePlace, and another event brings massage therapists directly into the organization’s emergency shelter, on the first Monday of each month. Along with massage therapy, services such as reiki therapy, facials and brow waxing often are offered as well.
“I get to see firsthand the way the energy shifts in the room, the way people light up and are sort of transformed just by getting a little bit of professional loving attention,” said Rosa Harper, supportive housing advocate at SafePlace. “It brings people back to life.”
According to Harper, the dire need for healing among survivors of domestic violence is the whole reason SafePlace offers complementary health services, such as massage therapy, to clients free of charge.
Trauma is Stored in the Body
As far as the qualifications massage therapists must meet in order to provide free sessions at SafePlace for survivors of domestic abuse, an up-to-date license is the main necessity. However, Harper said at least a basic level of knowledge about post-traumatic stress disorder should be attained before beginning work with this population.
“I think most people in the healing profession, most bodyworkers, they realize that trauma is stored in the body. The body remembers trauma, and massage is an excellent tool for relieving stored trauma and tension,” she said.
“Most people who’ve been through trauma are not in their bodies—your spirit kind of leaves your body for a little bit,” Harper added. “Massage is a helpful way to ground people back into their bodies and create a feeling of safety again.”
Brandi Schlossberg is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada. She has written on many topics for MASSAGE Magazine, including “A Day in the Life of an Integrative Medicine Massage Therapist” and “Elite Athletes Depend on Sports Massage.”