In this touch-averse culture, we often don’t experience much physical contact with other people when we are not in an intimate relationship. Yes, there’s cuddling the children, but sometimes we long just to be touched.
So friends may recommend massage, as a therapeutic, safe, professional way of experiencing touch. The massage therapist, if well-trained, will avoid sharing his problems with you, will listen, and will ease the tension in your muscles at the same time. Touch stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin, known as the “bonding” hormone. You can feel comfortable, connected, and relaxed.
Yet sometimes you go home and feel worse. Your muscles ache out of all proportion to the pressure exerted by the massage therapist. What’s happening?
Contemporary neuroscience says that we store memories not only in our brains but in the cells of our bodies as well. Although there isn’t, to my knowledge, a map of where certain kinds of memories are stored, it isn’t unusual to have chronic stress stored in the shoulders or in the back. While the stress is stored, the muscle tissue is more or less solid, more or less numbed. When the muscles begin to relax, the feeling comes back, and the feeling is sometimes uncomfortable—that is, painful. In addition, with the softening of the tension, the memories that have been stored away also come back. In the interest of your long-term emotional health, this can be a very good thing, healing for both body and mind.
But in the interest of your short-term well-being, it might be too much. Ida Rolf, whose name became synonymous with very deep tissue massage (“Rolfing”) used to say something like, “Don’t Rolf defense lawyers or football players. They need all the defenses they’ve got.”
If you’re feeling vulnerable and as if you need all the defenses you’ve got, you might want to discuss with a psychotherapist or an experienced massage therapist whether massage is right for you. You might be better off—just for now–sitting, cuddling the kids or petting your dog, for as long as they let you.