An image of the back of a person's head, with words and light all around it, is used to illustrate the concept of how words can affect a bodywork session.

Research is indicating that a person’s perception of pain is a complicated matter, predicated in part by a person’s beliefs and experiences.

This is why the right words are just as important as the right manual techniques for a beneficial therapeutic session and optimal outcomes.

What we say or do not say can influence whether a client is able to quiet their mind, relax their body and initiate a healing response. Communication is also an important, often overlooked, factor in client retention. In this article, I’ll focus on how three specific verbal communication skills can enhance and elevate the bodywork experience by optimizing body-mind integration.

The words we use matter in bodywork, because the body believes whatever the mind tells it.

Words are Powerful

The interaction between the mind and the body’s immune- and nervous-system physiological responses are the basis of the science of psychoneuroimmunology, as well as techniques such as biofeedback and body-mind therapies. Our thoughts and feelings profoundly affect our physiological functions. Our thoughts and feelings can even shift us in or out of the sympathetic fight-flight-freeze response or into the parasympathetic rest-digest-immune response.

Words are so powerful because they are psycho-neurolinguistic symbols, meaning there is a connection between a word and a deeper meaning related to that word. Some thoughts are electrical; they pass quickly, may be filtered or canceled out, and do not stick with us.

However, certain words and phrases become repeated more often and an image, an expectation, a habit then develops around that word or phrase, according to Emmett E. Miller, M.D., in his book, Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind/Body Medicine. Images produced by certain words or phrases can produce a minute release of neuropeptides that influence mood, perception, immunity and pain.

For example, close your eyes and imagine slicing, then tasting a juicy, bright yellow lemon. Your mouth is watering now, right? Next, close your eyes and repeat each of these phrases for a minute, and then notice what happens in your body and mind during and immediately after the phrases:

“My body feels tight and twisted;” and then,

“My body is like a river, flowing freely”

What did you notice?

With more than 25 years of professional bodywork experience, I’ve noticed a common factor in clients with chronic pain: These clients often begin their sessions characterizing their pain in pejorative terms, such as “This is my bad hip”; “I’m a trainwreck”; or “I’m all twisted up.” Shifting their relationship with their body through mindful language choices is pivotal in addressing their chronic pain and their relationship with their body.

Transform Interactions

The following three mindful communication skills can transform ordinary interactions into intentional, transformative, therapeutic dialogue.

1. Keep communication positive and affirmative. Positive words make people more receptive. People want to believe in a positive outcome to their healing crisis. Without making guarantees or impossible claims, select encouraging phrases that help shift the client’s mind to the positive to mindfully engage them with the healing process.

For example, when a client asks, 10 to 15 minutes into the session, “So, exactly how bad am I?” You could say, “These are the tightest, stickiest muscles I’ve worked on all month!” However, an intentional, transformative, therapeutic communication response turns the question back to the client; a response reflecting that process would sound something like, “How does your body feel to you?”

Help your client describe sensation over abstract concepts, prompting her, “Does it feel sticky, tender, burning or radiating?” Mindful use of the word pain can become a pivotal part of shifting pain into healing. Pain must be acknowledged and affirmed before it will go away, because what we resist persists.

However, once the pain has been fully described (sharp, dull, achy, numb), as the session progresses you should ask, “What is the sensation in the area like now?” and toward the end of the session ask, “How does this area feel now?” Guide your client using positive words such warmer, softer, looser, and repeat these words.

Verbalizing one’s body experience with guidance toward developing a compassionate embodiment awareness often jump-starts the healing process. Positive words and phrases include warm, good, comfortable, easy, like. Using these words has a positive effect, inducing the parasympathetic response, according to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., in his article, “Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System.”

Transformative therapeutic imagery uses and repeats phrases such as “Are you feeling warm enough?” rather than “Are you cold?” Negative words divide body and mind, induce the sympathetic response and halt the healing process, according to Tara Bennett-Goleman in her book, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. Negative words include words such as pain, loss, bad, worry, done, hard, pressure. So, “How’s the pressure?” transforms into “How does this feel?” or “Shall I lighten up or go deeper?”

2. Transformative words are descriptive, stimulating the senses and limbic system, or the emotional brain, according to Ernest L. Rossi and David B. Cheek, in their book, Mind-Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis.

 For example, relaxation is an abstract concept for many people who have forgotten what it means to be relaxed. Commanding clients to “just relax” asks them to perform a task they do not know how to do, which results in making them more tense. Instead, we can use images and descriptive words that lead the client to creating a symbol of relaxation. Statements such as “Your shoulders are rock hard!” transform into “Imagine your shoulder is softening and melting like warm butter,” or “Imagine a golden ray of sunshine, warming and softening your shoulder.”

3. Use potent words. What makes words potent is the meaning we give them; for example, lavender is a more potent word than purple.

By far, the most potent word you can use with anyone is her name. Use a client’s name three to five times during the span of an entire session, especially during the first session when you are establishing rapport and trust. This establishes a bond between you; making you a more compassionate practitioner, so the client feels more connected and therefore responsive and open. Always confirm you are pronouncing their name correctly and ask if he prefers a nickname, and don’t overuse the client’s name, as this can create a sense of discomfort.

To Talk — Or Not

We all have clients who love to chat during their sessions. Casual conversations and checking in with each other is a vital part of all human interactions, establishing rapport and making us feel safe and connected with one another.

However, excessive conversation distracts both client and therapist from the body, breath and the present moment. Recognizing when this is happening, shifting the dynamic, and guiding the client back into breath and body awareness is a powerful communication skill. Most people in modern culture need moments of silence in their lives. Silence is a vital aspect of bodywork: when the eyes, mouth and ears are not active, the sense of touch becomes magnified; the client’s ability to feel and experience her body expands tremendously.

The best way to guide a talkative client into silence is by asking them to focus on their breath and the sensation of touch. You can further amplify the body-mind integration by using a client’s favorite essential oil(s), playing their favorite soothing music and cueing them to visualize their favorite color. Lulling them into silence can induce a profound integrative experience.

Some clients are almost too quiet. As an experienced therapist, I believe I can often feel their mental dialogue working overtime; when the mind is preoccupied with thoughts of the past or the future, often dwelling in negative emotions—worry, fear, regret, apprehension—or on their to-do lists. This translates into a tense, tightly held body with shallow, infrequent breaths. Guiding these clients into the present moment and into a connection with their body will significantly amplify therapeutic outcomes.

Client Education

Many bodywork techniques require a certain amount of anatomical and structural education during the session. This is a vital aspect of healing, as it often helps clients create more body-mind awareness, which leads to shifts and changes in postural habits and behaviors. This is a major communication opportunity for massage therapists to enhance their sessions with the mindful application of language.

The intentional application of language for enhancing therapeutic outcomes involves avoiding certain words and phrases while tapping into insightful, compassionate listening to find pivotal transformative words and phrases to shift the client’s perception.

For example, imagine you’re seeing a returning client who hasn’t had a massage in a long time. Let’s call her Cathy. First, you ask her how her body feels. Cathy replies, “I’m a trainwreck!” At this moment, you have a pivotal opportunity to use verbal communication to either further entrench Cathy’s negative body experience or begin transforming her perception toward the healing process.

You could respond by saying, “Yes, I can clearly see you’re a trainwreck,” or “What have you been doing to yourself!” or “You know if you came in regularly for bodywork you wouldn’t get this bad,” or “I’m so sorry you’re in such pain.” While all these statements may be true, they affirm a negative perspective of Cathy’s body experience, keeping her mind locked into that pattern.

You could attempt to change the metaphor with, “You’re not a machine; you’re more like a garden.” While this may also be true, it’s a negating statement and doesn’t reflect to Cathy a sense of being heard and understood. Intentional, mindful therapeutic dialogue shifts Cathy’s perspective in a positive direction with, “Let’s get you realigned, back on track and flowing smoothly.”

Transform Your Internal Dialogue

There are words that open people up and words that tend to shut people down. Mindful communication skills enhance bodywork sessions with potent, positive, descriptive words that unify mind and body. Apply this approach to transform your internal dialogue as well. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you begin the process of shifting into a mindful use of therapeutic language.

When it comes to therapeutic dialogue and body-mind therapies, an important but often-blurry boundary to respect is the one between utilizing dialogue to enhance bodywork while not overstepping into psychological work. As in all body therapies, be guided by the highest ethical intentions, for the benefit of the client.

About the Author

Anna Lunaria, LAc, LMT, has more than 25 years of professional bodywork experience. She is also a yoga therapist and certified hypnotherapist. She owns the Lunaria Wellness Institute and has taught anatomy and massage classes since 1998.