Opening Your Mind and Body to Heal

Author: Diane Ryan

Massage Therapy and Working through Grief

Google “massage therapy benefits” and you discover over 100 million results on different techniques and the benefits to your physical and psychological health. Studies have shown the importance and effectiveness of massage therapy on those dealing with health issues causing inflammation, pain, fatigue, and anxiety.

However, when I experienced the loss of my former spouse, if well-intentioned family or friends had suggested I have a massage to help my grief, I would have told them I have no interest. It was not a method I thought of to help my emotional grief and physical pain. The only touch I longed for was from a person who could no longer be there to offer it.

White Towels and red rose

I developed a “frozen shoulder” from no apparent cause, and the condition was limiting my range of motion. Physical therapy wasn’t enough so I sought help from a recommended therapeutic massage therapist. I looked forward to the academic process of this massage, the “fixing,” so I could resume my “have to’s” in life. What transpired astonished me. As the massage therapist worked with my shoulder I had a deep emotional reaction. It was as if the muscles in my shoulder were literally holding the grief I had in my heart; holding on so tight that the physical result was keeping my shoulder, and probably my grief process, stunted and frozen. This massage was a turning point for me. My muscles had begun to wake up, and I was allowing the reconnection to my mind. I learned so much about the powerful connection between our minds, our emotions, and the manifestations in our bodies.

Griefs effects on the body

What we feel, experience, and interpret with our minds will have an effect on our bodies. This has never been more evident to me when I experienced my loss.

When we are first launched into grief, our bodies respond in a way to protect us. This is a completely automatic response from our brain when we are threatened in some way; we are reflexively dropped into a fight-or-flight mode.

Emotions of extreme loss, heartache, and shock are interpreted by the body as trauma. Chemicals and hormones flood our bodies in an effort to maintain balance within our systems and keep us going.

Unfortunately, when the release of these chemicals does not subside, as is often the case with extreme stress, there is a severe disruption of balance within our systems. We may have trouble sleeping and low energy. Often we feel that we might be getting sick, have muscle aches, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, headaches, and changes in appetite and weight. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it is different for everyone.

When our bodies are kept in a constant state of stress, the hormone cortisol, for example, can be responsible for a decrease in our immune system, weight fluctuations, higher blood pressure, and the feeling of not being able to think clearly. Remarkably, our bodies can intuitively and reflexively re-balance. Supporting the body with this process of re-balancing is vital. It determines how well, and often times, how quickly we can get back to a state of well-being in our body, mind, and spirit.

Allowing movement when grief keeps us frozen

Our bodies are designed to be in motion. All of the processes within our bodies are based on movement. While many do not think of “movement” when booking a massage, initiating movement is precisely what massage does for your body. Massage therapy is by definition, “the systematic manual manipulation of soft tissue to enhance health and well-being.”1 Through this manipulation, our systems are instructed to re-organize and reset.

Stress in our bodies creates a state of non-movement. This is precisely what I experienced with my shoulder. Despite my best attempts, I was only addressing the physical aspect. My body was a direct reflection of my mind’s and heart’s desire to not move. Direct therapeutic touch coaxed my body out of its frozen state.

As a result of my own experience, I have become passionate about massage therapy as part of a healthcare regimen. Massage improves the blood and lymph circulation allowing more oxygen to be delivered, and in turn helps the immune system be more effective.

In grief, our normal self-care routines are broken. Soon we realize our bodies and spirit are worn down and exhausted. The thought of going for a simple walk, getting back to the gym, or just stepping outside can feel daunting. Having always been an extremely active person, I struggled resuming my physical routine.

Although it was a physical ailment that brought me to massage, as I continued I found I would allow myself to be deeply present in my body, feeling very safe and taken care of. Massage therapy is an option and available opportunity for helping the body heal while under such an enormous stress, allowing us to “power down” for a block of time, and feeling a sense of well-being and release.

Unconditional touch and the nervous system

Human contact, touch, closeness — study after study has shown that animals and humans alike need touch to develop and thrive. But, do we really think about how much touch we have in our lives? We live in a time of “personal space,” “boundaries,” and illnesses spread by simple human contact. When we are grieving, pulling into ourselves seems natural, and we have our reasons, whether it is to spare ourselves or spare those around us. Hugs from well-meaning friends are not the same and perhaps now touch has become a grief trigger.

I began denying myself what I give so passionately to others. Touch had become a trigger for me and when I would openly and honestly receive a hug, I fought back pain and tears. The first relaxing massage I had after my loss, I found myself realizing I had not allowed touch to resonate within me. I did not want any memories, more tears, and more pain to come flooding in. In turn, I had not allowed relaxation within.

So many of us “brace” our bodies in ways we are not even aware of, just as I was also doing. And I immediately learned how massage therapy can be a catalyst in the healing journey. It may seem very counterintuitive, almost unnatural, and difficult to allow yourself to receive a massage when you are grieving, however the benefits are truly immeasurable.

Skin is our body’s largest organ, and a touch on the skin has a ripple effect on every aspect of our being. A simple touch activates our neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in our nervous system that control our bodies’ functions. They help with movement, being more productive, feeling balanced, combating pain, and just feeling well.

Healing body and mind with massage therapy

We, as human beings, are beautifully and efficiently constructed, experiencing our lives within our minds, our bodies, and our consciousness. However, each facet of our being is not separate. What we outwardly live, we inwardly process, and then our physical bodies are a reflection of this. We depend on our systems to work seamlessly together. When loss comes into our world, our entire being feels attacked. We seek answers on all levels and struggle to nourish ourselves. As a survivor myself, and working with survivors, I know grief and physical pain are true struggles. They do not leave us, they become an integral part of us. We learn to live with the pain on all levels, and it changes as time carries us forward. And, despite the devastation around and within us, I continue to witness and experience the healing effects that massage therapy has on a person’s entire being. The touch experienced through massage therapy is a modality of healthcare that has the ability to lead us back to our complete selves when we are shattered by loss and grief. 

Diane Ryan, LMT is a licensed massage therapist in Wellington, Colorado and the surviving ex-spouse of Sgt. Raymon A. Woolery of the Army National Guard. With 14 years experience as an EMT and now specializing in clinical massage, she is using her experience and expertise to bring awareness, education, and treatment of massage therapy to active military, veterans, and those seeking care in the greater Northern Colorado area. Diane is also a TAPS peer mentor. 

1, Moyer CA, Rounds J, Hannum JW. A meta-analysis of Massage
Therapy research, Psychol Bull. 2004; 130(1):3–18