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Beyond Bodywork: How Physical Therapies sooth the Mind

I had been practicing bodywork for 9 years when I started my Psychotherapy course. In conversation with a family member, I mentioned my plan to study the subject and was met with an expression of complete confusion - where had this career curveball come from and why would someone working with massage and bodywork be pursuing the more 'serious' business of mind therapy?

The link was actually very obvious to me, as after years of working closely with many clients in an intimate setting, it was clear that the benefits of bodywork went far beyond the physical. 


It is widely accepted and understood that tight, stressed muscles are not conducive to wellbeing - they are uncomfortable, can impair movement and impede the free flow of blood around the body, making a person feel heavy, sluggish, tired and irritable. On a fairly obvious level then, therapeutic Bodywork, such as massage, releases this discomfort and returns the body and mood to a more 'normal' state. 


Bodywork, first and foremost, involves touch and as mammals we are hardwired to seek it. From a developmental standpoint, infants literally cannot survive without human touch: skin-to-skin contact in the first hour after birth has been shown to help regulate a newborn's temperature, heart rate and breathing; it also helps decrease crying (Ferber, Feldman & Makkhoul, 2008). In the 1960's, American Psychologist, Harry Harlow, conducted social experiments on young rhesus monkeys; in these experiments he separated the monkeys from their mothers and gave them surrogates: a wire mother, who provided nourishment, and a cloth mother, who provided 'contact comfort'. The monkeys repeatedly chose the comfort of the cloth mother over the wire mother, who, although she gave food, did not provide the nurture and solace that they needed. Harlow's findings went on to influence and underpin Attachment Theory, which was developed by British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. 


Since Harlow’s experiments, research has uncovered an astonishing number of poor health outcomes that result when we are deprived of touch. Therapeutic touch reduces levels of cortisol in the body, the chemical involved in the 'fight or flight' stress response. Cortisol is present in situations of increased blood pressure, as well as being involved in glucose metabolism, immune function, inflammatory response and insulin and blood sugar regulation - processes which can lead to serious ill health if Cortisol production goes unchecked due to chronic stress.

When cortisol levels decline, production of the 'feel good' endorphins dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, increase, boosting the body's ability to fight off pain and anxiety. 


Studies using PET scans have further found that the brain quietens in response to stress when a person’s hand is held; the effect is greatest when the hand being held is that of a loved one, but it still works even if it’s a stranger (Field, 2010) and research conducted in 2014 (Lindgren, Jacobsen and Lamas) revealed that massage was one of the most effective ways in which to benefit from touch, showing it to ease depression, increase attentiveness and enhance immune function.


Massage is one of the most effective ways to induce the relaxation response in your body, so you can feel better mentally and physically. When you take care of yourself with massage, or Bodywork, you are doing more than 'just' relaxing or 'treating' yourself (a concept which many struggle with), you are balancing your hormones, soothing your psyche and attending to your Self.


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