Emotional Release and Massage Therapy: What is the mind-body connection?

Emotional Release and Massage Therapy: What is the mind-body connection?


Most of us who receive regular massage do so for a myriad of reasons, and not just to alleviate physical tension or discomfort. As a matter of fact, most say they do so at least in part, for the overall relaxation this therapy provides – for the sense of peace and mental relief a massage can bring.


However, you may be surprised to experience what can feel like a sudden rush of emotions, either while receiving a massage, or perhaps shortly thereafter.  Positive emotions, like euphoria or general happiness or well-being…but also sometimes more unexpected ones, like grief, anger, fear or sadness. Not all body memories that surface on the massage table are negative or intense.  Some may find that they simply have a vague feeling with an emotional charge.  Regardless, emotional stirrings conjured after deep physical stimuli such as massage, are a phenomenon is known as emotional release.


One brief theory to explain this emotional release during a massage, is that in accessing the soft tissues as deeply as they sometimes are during bodywork, emotional energies stored there can be unlocked.


An understanding of how emotion can be acquired through body tissue can be explained through the concept of body memory.


Body memory is a hypothesis that the body itself is capable of storing memories, as opposed to only the brain. In this theory, the mind’s ability to recall past emotional events has the ability to be provoked by certain stimuli of the nervous system.


There are conflicting opinions on this theory and thus as of yet is considered to be pseudoscientific; to date there are no known means by which tissues other than the brain’s are capable of actual storage of neurological memories. Yet it is inarguable that some sensory experiences have been certainly linked to memory, and all of us have experienced this at least once in our lives.


Take, for example, the way in which a smell can be so deeply connected with a particular memory. Perhaps you have had the experience of stepping into a bakery or restaurant, and seemingly out of nowhere you suddenly remember a specific instance of a home-cooked meal or loved one in the kitchen, from years ago. Or, have you ever been in a crowded place – an airport, or a packed mall – and somewhere amongst the crowd you catch a whiff of a cologne or perfume and are sharply reminded of a person from your past, of whom you certainly weren’t thinking of until that very moment?  Smell is one of the senses most strongly associated with memory.


And just like the association of smell and memory, other sensory experiences can prompt body memory, too.  One well-documented example is the concept of phantom pain. A person who has had the very acute sensory experience of losing a limb may still have the feelings and sensations of moving that limb, even though it is physically no longer there.  Just like smell can bring up memories, sensory body sensations can bring up memories, too.


As we deepen into a state of relaxation during a massage, the mind will enter a trance-like state. That super-zoned-out feeling that so many of us love about a massage!  During this state, when a body memory arises, we can be so relaxed in the moment that we will sometimes not even notice it right away, and therefore, it can feel as though we have no idea where these emotions are coming from when we are finally aware of them.


Some massage therapists are specifically trained to work with body memory to intentionally create releases. This form of therapy is called somato-emotional release therapy. However, even therapists who are not specifically trained in this special technique still learn the basics of emotional release, how to recognize when one comes up, and how to help the client return to the present moment.


If you find yourself suddenly feeling a powerful emotion on the table, don’t be afraid to let your therapist know.  The experience of such emotion does not mean you are going crazy, but might simply instead be a form of body memory arising as emotion.


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