In an ideal relaxation massage, we let go of our stress, our muscles soften and our mind drifts off into bliss.
The feeling stays with us for several days, as we recall the lusciousness of the experience.
Yet frequently, a client’s experience is far from this ideal.
Some clients don’t really let go of muscle tension and mind chatter, and even if they do, it returns almost as soon as the massage is over.
Is there a way to teach clients how to drop deeply into relaxation during massage?
Can we learn to use massage as a consciousness-training tool to help clients to continue accessing deep relaxation states long after they are off the table, and to manage chronic conditions, such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
These questions have been central to my practice since 1999, when I began developing the Neuromassage approach to bodywork.
Touch + Technology
Neuromassage, which incorporates massage techniques designed to calm the nervous system with biofeedback and neurofeedback, helps even clients with extreme conditions to live full and satisfying lives, despite their histories of neurological and psychological challenges.
In 1989, as a massage therapy student, I had my first experience of a profound, prolonged state change from massage therapy. I have a condition called Tourette’s Syndrome, which creates a feeling of pressure to make unwanted sounds and movements, known as tics. Additionally, there is a substantial level of muscular discomfort.
After receiving my third highly effective session of deep shoulder massage within the course of a week (as part of my training), I noticed that the urge to tic had almost completely disappeared for a few hours! I had not experienced that level of calm in my body since my tics began, at the age of 8.
Even though the urge to tic returned gradually, and was back to its usual level a few days later, I could tell that something important had temporarily shifted in my mind, as well as in my body.
I became very interested in what that something might be, and how it could be prolonged.
Learning to Release Muscle Tension
In 1999, as a graduate student in neuroscience at Brown University, I had some insights into the mechanisms of this shift in consciousness.
It occurred to me that the neural learning processes of synaptic plasticity and operant conditioning must be responsible for both the short-term and long-term changes experienced during and after a massage.
Neural plasticity is the process of adjusting the strength of connections within a neural network. A neural network is a group of neurons, connected both physically and functionally, in order to accomplish a particular task.
The strengths of the connections in the network are constantly being adjusted, based upon input generated by sensory input and cognitive processes. Changes in connection strength affect the output of the network.
For example, if you receive a shoulder massage, and it results in a reduction of muscular tension, then the network of cells that is responsible for releasing muscle tension in response to pressure gets stronger.
However, if you receive a massage that is too hard for you to relax into and your muscles tense up, then the network responsible for creating a defensive response to excess pressure gets stronger.
Operant conditioning is the process of learning based upon reward. Let’s say you’re learning to ride a bicycle. You set an intention to balance on the bike and not fall down when you turn the corner. Then you practice.
If you succeed, you experience reward.
Physiologically, reward means the release of dopamine, which strengthens whatever neural networks are active immediately surrounding the reward.
So, the networks involved in accurately navigating and balancing on the bike are strengthened whenever you succeed in that task.
Learning through massage works in a similar fashion. You lie on a massage table with the intention to relax your muscles and quiet your mind.
If your massage therapist is able to guide you, through words and touch, into a state of deep relaxation in your body and mind, then you learn how to let go of muscle tension and stress. The neural networks involved in relaxing into touch, and letting go in response to your intention to do so, get stronger.
Ideally this learning generalizes into everyday life, and you learn how to stay relaxed in a wide variety of circumstances.
This experience, however, seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Of over 1,000 clients whom I have interviewed about their previous experiences with massage therapy, only a few have reported that they had learned how to relax in general through receiving massage.
Most have responded that either they can’t quiet their minds very well, they can’t consciously feel their muscles softening (even though the massage may feel good), or they can’t access these states once the massage is over. The learning clearly does not happen so easily.
So, what, if anything, can be done to enhance the ability to learn the critical skills of finding peace and relaxation in the body and mind?
Finding relaxation in the body and mind is generally much easier if we first learn two important skills: mindfulness and conscious embodiment.
Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment. It is being present with what is actually happening, within and outside of ourselves, without getting caught up in judgment, habitual thoughts, or efforting to try to mentally change what is.
Conscious embodiment is mindfulness applied to the body. It is learning to be aware of the multi-dimensional world of subtle sensations that provide us with a much richer, expansive, and empowered experience of life.
Conscious embodiment is a separate (yet related) concept from embodied cognition, which is the scientific theory that the entire body, and not just the brain, participates in thinking and feeling.
When we are mindful, we are able to observe our thoughts, know and feel our feelings, identify our needs, and think clearly about the strategies that we would like to employ in order to achieve our most important needs and goals.
If our intention is to relax, then mindfulness helps us to be aware of the contents of our mind, and to focus our attention on relaxing processes, such as letting go of the sense of emotional attachment to thoughts, breathing slowly, fully, and rhythmically, feeling the quality of the practitioner’s touch, and releasing places where we are holding in our body.
Mindfulness is frequently learned through meditative practices. Recently, however, neurofeedback has emerged as a tool for greatly accelerating our capacity to learn mindfulness.
Feeling with Feedback
During massage, concurrent neurofeedback can greatly enhance our ability to still the mind by inducing theta waves or other beneficial patterns in the brain. Such brain states help us to experience maximum benefit from the nurturing that we receive.
Neurofeedback allows clients with PTSD or anxiety, or simply those with busy minds, to experience a deeper sense of safety, which opens the door to deeper emotional transformational processes.
Conscious embodiment lets us feel the sensations in our bodies. Nearly everyone has some level of conscious embodiment.
When we feel pain, pleasure, or tension in our bodies, we are experiencing conscious embodiment.
Yet some people are far more aware of the experience of their bodies than others. A dancer or yoga instructor, for example, is likely to be more finely attuned to sensory experiences, such as muscular tension and balance, than is the average person.
Someone with significant trauma, on the other hand, may be far less accurately attuned to their body than what is typical, due to dissociative compensation mechanisms.
The more we train ourselves to be mindful of our bodies, the more control we gain over our bodies and minds.
Most importantly for massage, mindful embodiment allows us to consciously let go of muscular tension, in order to receive maximum benefit from therapeutic touch.
Electromyography (EMG) biofeedback directly measures the level of muscular activity, and has been used for decades to train people how to maximally relax their muscles.
While yoga asanas and other mind-body practices are also very important and effective, EMG can often help clients to develop the capacity to mindfully embody the relaxation response much faster than the traditional practices.
In combination with massage, I have found it to be a very powerful tool for teaching clients how to relax into touch, and for maintaining relaxation long after the massage is over. It is also an excellent tool for training massage therapists to improve the quality of their touch, and increase awareness of how the tissues are responding.
All forms of biofeedback, including EMG and neurofeedback, operate by the principles of operant conditioning. A reward is given when the preferred behavior is observed, creating a positive feeling, which is accompanied by a rush of dopamine.
Dopamine enhances the strength of the neural networks that were active immediately prior to the reward, through the process of synaptic plasticity.
Synaptic plasticity is the changing of both the strength and number of synapses, in order to improve the efficiency of neural networks.
In 18 years of practicing Neuromassage, I have found that the combination of slow, focused massage strokes, attentive “listening” with the fingers, hands, and even elbows, with neurofeedback or EMG biofeedback, can make a huge difference in helping clients learn to manage their symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety and trauma.
It can also enhance the effectiveness of psychotherapy, by improving the clients’ ability to remain calm and resourced, while addressing difficult issues.
Additionally, the practitioners whom I have trained in Neuromassage techniques have found them extremely valuable in learning how to sense when their clients are heading toward the state of body and mind that the therapist intends.
It is my hope that the integration of neuro-technologies, such as EEG and EMG, with massage, will eventually become commonplace, both in clinical practice and tin he training of massage therapists to become maximally effective in helping their clients to achieve, and maintain, the deepest states of relaxation possible.
About the Author
Langdon Roberts is a classically trained neuroscientist as well as a massage therapist and holistic health educator. He is the cofounder and Director of the Santa Cruz Neurofeedback Center in Santa Cruz, California. Roberts originally trained in massage therapy and holistic health education at the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, California, in 1990. In 1999, he received his master’s degree in Neuroscience from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
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