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Psychotherapy and the
 Body – Part 2

Judith Ashton

On a purely physical level massage affects all the major systems in the body which includes the muscles, skin, lymph system, circulation etc and it can encourage the organs and systems to function effectively.

Massage is known to have a positive effect on high blood pressure, digestive disorders, muscular aches and pains, back problems, arthritis, rheumatism. It can aid sleep and help ease general stress and tension.

Massage aims to relax the body and relax the mind. When both mind and body are deeply relaxed the self-healing capacity of the physical body is encouraged, especially if the intention of the therapist is to unblock and channel energy. This is the aim of many types of massage, but the wider implications of touch cannot be underestimated. A lot has been written about the physical response to touch, very little on the psychological significance of touch .

Touch is basic, simple, and universal. It cuts through race, colour and creed. It is direct communication, and sadly we’re mostly out of touch. Look at the language, especially English ‘in touch’, ‘out of touch’, ‘it touches me’, ‘a touching moment’ etc. Touch is a forgotten healing art, we’ve forgotten how to touch, where to touch and when to touch each other and we need to relearn it. The therapeutic use of hands is a universal human act, something we’ve forgotten in our admiration of mechanical technology.

Touch is not just a physical sensation, it is also an emotional experience. It can’t be taken for granted that everyone has a positive attitude towards touch. There has been an upsurge of interest and research into child abuse and statistics prove that many people have undergone painful, distressing and negative experiences to do with touch and physical abuse. For these people touch can be an extremely threatening way of being related to. This brings us to an awareness of physical and psychological boundaries and permission in relationship to touch.

Each of us has our own particular boundaries in relation to touch. We are very clear about whom we allow to touch us, where they can touch us and how they can touch us. We all have boundaries, and the extent of these boundaries is always connected to past experiences, conditioning and upbringing. This comes back to the ideal of permission and there are social rules and roles which abide in terms of touch. Touch will only be a positive, comforting way of relating if the person being touched feels positive and in control of the situation. Touch for many people is threatening because of its sexual connotations. Many people do not touch non-sexually. They only know sexual touch. Touch naturally is the first language between mother and child, a source of security and nourishment and sadly as we grow older our experience of touch decreases, and because of certain sexual attitudes and inhibitions we tend not to touch unless the situation is clearly defined.

The word massage in the west has for a long time been used within a sexual context – in fact serious massage has nothing to do with sex at all but more to do with healing and it is within this healing context that many practitioners are now working. Healing not only the body; if they are skilled, with an understanding of the mind- body connection, they can help heal inner emotional tensions by facilitating insights into the nature and origins of stress factors. Massage and touch can be deeply moving spiritual experiences.

Healing Through Touch

It is the Reichian theories and my training in Reichian work that brings me to the use of touch and massage as part of the psychological and physical healing process.

I use the word massage to mean anything from working vigorously, to stroking and caressing and even to simply holding and just “being there,” allowing my clients   to “be” – touching for touching’s sake, helping them to feel supported and maybe to breathe out for the first time in their life.

The key to all the work I do with touch and massage is an awareness all the time of the breath. We use our breathing as a psychological mechanism of suppression and repression of emotions whether we know it or not. This is very clear in a massage session. If a client is feeling anxious, provoked or moved in any way, it will register via the breathing and be clearly seen in a quickening or holding of the breath.

No two clients and no two sessions are the same. All is in a state of flux and change as the process of unlocking bodily tension continues. When I look at a client, I don’t look at a “mechanism” to be put right, but at a being to be understood – a manifestation of tremendous energy on her own journey, following her own destiny.

A very important aspect of unlocking bodily tension and of understanding it, is communication. The client needs to trust and to learn how to express what feels right or wrong for her. After all, each individual knows far more about themselves than I can hope to do, and however sensitive and perceptive I can be, I will never know how massage feels from inside their skin.

The massage session can be an extremely useful place to begin to explore aspects of self assertion, a place to begin to contact and recognise one’s own needs. As a team of therapist and client we work in harmony. Massage can be a very helpful, empowering and insightful therapy.

Touching The Medical Profession

A particular interest of mine has been teaching member of the medical profession and I run regular courses in England at the University of Surrey and they are well attended by nurse-tutors and doctors interested in the psychology of touch and the value of touch for both the physically and psychologically ill patient. “Awareness” is most important when working on this level with patients as there is a real qualitative difference between the purely mechanical investigative type of touch and the intentional directed touch. As yet relatively little research has been done in this area, but the body of knowledge and results are growing steadily .

The psychological implications of touch and massage are many and varied. It has been seen to be beneficial for clients who are lacking in self esteem and manifest symptoms of insecurity. It is also of benefit to those with “body-image” problems, for all kinds of “stress-symptoms”, for abuse victims, the physically and mentally ill, pregnant women (and post-natal), the bereaved, and many more.

In my experience, to work in close contact with massage and touch is a privilege. When massage is used in conjunction with psychotherapy and counselling it is indeed a most valuable and rewarding skill.

“Character Analysis”. Wilhelm Reich, Farrar, Straus and Girou. New York. 3rd Edition 1972. “In The Wake of Reich”. Edited by David Boadella, Coventure Ltd., London 1976

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