by Thea Willcocks, former Pregnancy Massage practitioner at Bristol Massage Therapy
Having started to work with pregnancy over the last year, one of the most major life changes to happen to anyone, it has become even more apparent to me how massage has a useful role to play when clients are experience periods of transformation and disruption in their lives. This article hopes to highlight the benefits of massage at these times and describe some of the techniques that a therapist might use to help clients through a period of transition.
Change happens to a greater or lesser degree on a daily basis, these change may vary widely between clients, they may include; change of geographical location and the notion of home, change in the work life balance, changes in relationships, retirement and emotional loss. Some people are experiencing more than one of these changes at the same time. Like buses, changes often seem to come in groups as things impact upon each other and change instigates change.
Change is disruptive to our routines and established patterns. This disruption can both be welcome and life enhancing as well as unwelcome and straining. Even changes for good can carry a level of stress as the individual challenges patterns in themselves, in terms of their ways of thinking as well as physically.
Each individual has a different level of adaptability and emotional responsiveness to change depending on their background and state of mind at the time of change. I have, however, observed some commonality in the effects of change felt by different clients that a massage practitioner may want to take into consideration. These have included a heightened sensitivity both physically and emotionally, forgetfulness, issues committing time, feeling unsteady and ungrounded and finding it hard to focus a busy mind. I have also found that change also presents many clients with the opportunity to form a new relationship with their bodies and sense of self.
Several changes at once
For a client who was undergoing several life changes including the death of their father, a gradual change of work/ life balance as they moved into retirement and the physical disruption of building work in the home, symptoms were both physical and emotional. Physical symptoms included tiredness, aching hands and feet, a tightness in the chest and allergies. Emotional symptoms included finding it hard to commit time to self care, uncertainty about the future and a sense of loosing their identity. They also experienced frustration and anger at times, when things felt out of their control.
Our massage work together focused predominantly on hands and feet as well as a gentle focus on breathing. Gentle work and stillness were most appropriate in this case and we also included some work on the face and head. The quality of touch was detailed and caring.
Another client had initiated the change by a move in geography. They were seeking a better life/ work balance and to be closer to nature. Physical symptoms included a flair up of a long term back issue as well as a new pain around the hips and lower abdomen. In terms of posture they were holding tension across the hips as well as in the shoulders. They were also driving more and therefore starting to feeling a twist through the body. Emotional symptoms included frustration due to issues with communication, and feelings of heightened sensitivity, fogginess and forgetfulness.
During the massage work used I included polarity work and body sweeps to create a sense of connection throughout the whole body, with a focus on the contralateral plain. More detailed work focused mainly on the back, neck shoulders and face, but, I also included side lying work for the hips and lower back, looking to balance the muscles around the lumber spine and through the pelvis. My focus was on creating sensations of opening, stretching and balancing. We often finished with the legs and feet to offer a sense of grounding.
The end of a significant relationship as a personal choice is also a period of change experienced by many. One clients’ response to this kind of change was to also seek a new relationship with their own body in response to long term back pain. Their physical symptoms included pain in the lower back and hips as well as tops of thighs and tension around the neck and head. They were also seeking Improvements in their relationship with digestion, which had been a long term issue.
Emotional symptoms included a heightened sensitivity, feeling their emotions close to surface and feelings of frustration with their own body at times.
Our massage work focused on the lower back, abdomen and hips and also some deeper work into the thighs. The face, neck hands and feet were areas that responded well to slow gentle and detailed work. Hands held over the lower back as well as on the hands, feet and forehead were used to calm and steady. Polarity sweeps gave a sense of the body as a whole defining its edges. The quality of touch was focused on a sense of grounding, balancing and steadying.
Work / retirement
Another big life change is retirement and this too can cause a client to seek a new approach to their own physicality. One client found that they became more aware of long term postural issues due to a new exercise regime they were trying. They were very proactive initiating change with a deep interest in breathing. They were also becoming very busy, one change instigating another so felt the need to have some time out from thinking.
Massage work focused on the lower back with some work on the side to release around the hips. We also worked with legs and feet to draw energy down and offer grounding. Breath work and work into upper chest also proved beneficial. Work on the face, head and neck created a quiet space for the mind when offered soothing and calming touch.
My personal experience
In terms of my own experience on the massage coach at times of change I have often felt the need for work around my hips, sacrum, ankles and feet as it can be that at these times that I feel the least balanced. I have found massage to be a great tool to ease tension, increase mobility and encourage a better balance in my body use. Other symptoms at these times have been issues with digestion and a tightness in my chest. It has felt good to have a therapist work around the ribs opening up this area. The encouragement of relaxation through touch pressure supported by carefully chosen words along with an emphasis on deeper breathing has really aided the work.
Like many, my neck and shoulders also required a lot of work due to the habit of raising my shoulders when I'm thinking a lot. As an extension of this it also feels good to have work on the arms. Work into hands and wrists helps sooth arms that are always busy and often hold tension along with the face. Face and head massage has always had the most relaxing effect for me as it can make you feel truly supported and cared for, soothing an anxious and busy mind, which in turn has an effect on the whole body. My stomach has felt sensitive and I have not wanted much touch here, but, work around the lower back and sacrum has helped with digestive issues.
Most recently due to changes in my body bought about by pregnancy, I have felt the need for detailed work around my lower back and sides, my lower ribs, waist and middle back as well as tops of shoulders. Stabilising the hips and ankles as well as releasing the top of the neck and jaw have all contributed to feeling more connected and open through the body. The body feels habitual patterns more intensely as I experience hormonal changes and a shift in my centre of gravity. New habits in sleeping and the strain of the growing baby effects both anatomy and the nervous system. But, most significant has been the feeling during a massage that it is my body that is being nurtured and cared for. It is not simply existing as a support system but a living entity in its own right. Soothing the body, feeds back into the pregnancy, encouraging a sense of connection with the growing baby and promotes a sense of natural well-being. I feel this sense of being nurtured and listen to is true of any client, but especially when undergoing a period of change.
When working with clients experiencing significant life changes there is a lot of variation in individual circumstances, therefore one cannot generalise to much when making suggestions for massage, symptoms are individual to each person depending on age, medical history and activity, however I have seen some common needs across my client group.
The initial consultation is of course your most vital key in terms of building a relationship with the client and forming a strategy for helping them through a period of disruption and change. It is important to find out how they are feeling in their body that day and although they may have come to you to tackle a physical issue possibly brought about by a new routine, encourage them to acknowledge and be open to the emotional elements that may be at play when you start to work together.
I have felt that a gentle and slow approach has worked best. This may well be the clients first experience of massage and therefore another instigator for change, it can in itself be daunting and unsettling. This is also why I suggest working slowly, checking in with my client about depth of touch and areas of the body. It is important to establish a dialogue be this verbal or sensory and be guided by the clients’ responses. I feel it is beneficial for a client to develop a relationship to their body over a period of time at times of change and therefore it may take several sessions to get into work that really opens up the body.
A common theme I have noticed is the need for balancing both physically and emotionally. I have found this is often felt in the hips, lower back and legs. There has also been a need to be soothed. I have also found working in quite a detailed way into small areas of the body such as feet, hand and face can have a real impact on the whole body. These places are our connections with the outside world and often hold a lot of tension particularly when we are feeling unsteady or anxious. Working with breath and using gentle holds is also great to sooth and steady. Body sweeps and polarity work can help make the person feel whole and cohesive, connecting body parts. I find it is important to be gentle around the abdomen and over the digestive system, checking in with the client about IBS or tension here.
In terms of contraindications as with every client be guided by the individual, change may be part of a much bigger picture. Clients may be seeking change in themselves simply as physical relief from other symptoms or as an active engagement with their body to improve their lives. I try to offer each client the perfect balance of both.