Many of the practitioners at Lovelight Healing Center, where I run my business, have been noting that the number of women (specifically, because this is the group of the population we work with the most) revealing sexual trauma history in their work together has been growing. In a #MeToo era, I believe the number will continue to grow and we need to be prepared to respond in a healing way. The intention of this article is to pass on what I learned to facilitate this preparedness.

As a massage therapist, we receive training that briefly covers holding space for any kind of emotional release on the table- and largely, it suffices. However, I knew there was more to learn on a nuanced level- especially how to verbally respond in the least ignorant (however well-intentioned) way. So, when Lovelight Healing Center  recently partnered with Zacharias Center for Sexual Abuse to create unique training that is not often offered to “alternative” healthcare practitioners- I gratefully attended. Though grim (i.e. per the Center, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18; 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker), the information given was very thorough and helpful. The teachers were just as compassionate as their teachings.

I appreciated that I was able to walk away with immediatly-applicable tools to help me respond in a healing way to clients in crisis. For example, one of my biggest takeaways was to let the client name his/her own experience. Instead of assuming something like “that’s awful” in response to a story, ask the client how he or she feels about it; let him/her/them say what it was to them. To be fair, someone saying something like “that’s awful” can be really validating at times; but in response to bigger trauma, I am realizing there is a process at hand that we, as practitioners, can only witness, hold space for, and do our best not to superimpose any of our “stuff’ on.

According to the Zacharias Center, the elements required to create safe spaces and relationships in this process include:

  • Setting predictable, consistent, healthy boundaries in which trust is not automatically assumed; this can include de-centering power, privilege, or hierarchy that the practioner may be perceived to have
  • Understanding that the practitioner does not have “ascribed” credibility but rather, “achieved” credibility which happens over time with relationship building
  • Using ourselves as an environment- I believe this is mirroring all of the above in addition to holding an overall compassionate space
  • Valuing our clients through an intersectionality lens, meaning having an awareness of the power differential between client and practitioner and how this can be compounded by social or cultural status’
  • Using culturally grounded practice and resources, meaning taking into account whether your client would be more responsive to a collective or individualistic approach when receiving help & also being aware of systems of care your client may already trust and use
  • Bearing witness; meaning to listen deeply in honor and acknowledgement of what is true for your client without judgement

Additionally, these teachings expanded into how whole organizations can work to be more “trauma-informed” which is defined as: “organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all types of trauma”; basically with the intention to resist re-traumatization of the client. It is the principle of this approach to “recognize the role trauma plays in the lives of clients and seek to shift the clinical perspective from ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what happened to you’ by recognizing and accepting symptoms and difficult behaviors as strategies developed to cope with childhood and adult trauma”.

Embodying the following qualities helps to create a “trauma-informed” intervention with a client in crisis:

  • Rapport- the relationship has good rapport, meaning it is based on trust, care, and concern; this will hopefully have already been built over your time with this client or will be built as your client begins to heal in your presence
  • Empathy- there is an awareness of your clients’ feelings which  communicates “we are in this together,” not simply expressing assurances
  • Show warmth and care- your client will know if you are disconnected
  • Genuineness- mean what you say and say what you mean by responding in ways that are reflective of your true self
  • Unconditional positive regard- having value and care for the client regardless of beliefs, choices, and/or values that may differ from our own

Another major way Zacharias Center contributed to our learning was to teach the effects of trauma on the brain as well as its ability to heal itself.  This science further supports our ability to see trauma for what it is and to avoid applying unhelpful “meanings” or labels that in essence downplay a client’s experience. It frees us to simply respond. Science tells us that trauma effects the brain in these ways:

  • Trauma can alter function in three key areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (the “executive function” or “thinking”/decision-making center); the anterior cingulate cortex or “emotion regulation center”; and the amygdala or “fear center”
  • Compared to a “healthy” brain, a traumatized brain’s “thinking center” and “emotional regulation” area are both under-activated, whereas the “fear center” is over-activated
  • Fight or Flight Syndrome can occur, which means the brain is stuck in flight, flight, or freeze, (the brain/body response to perceived danger)  which means that, whether a threat is still present or not, the brain/body remains in fight, flight, or freeze. This can include continuous increased heart rate, tunnel vision, muscle tension, sweating, and increased hearing ability. Being in this state overall decreases a person’s quality of health and life.

As part of our response to clients healing from trauma, the most important thing of all to know AND believe is that our brains can heal! WE can heal. The characteristics of a traumatized brain noted above can CHANGE! The scientific reason for this is based on the concept of neuroplasticity: which is the brains ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections. In this process, neurons compensate for injury and adjust their activities in response to change. This is where massage, one of many “body-oriented therapies”, comes in and hopes to be of service. After all, embryologically speaking, our entire nervous system, sensory organs, and skin develop from the same sheet of cells known as the ectoderm. The implications of this are endless.

Research points to the implication this article is driving at, which is that body work can play a powerful part in healing trauma, possibly due to the aforementioned embryological link. In the very popular and formative book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. , one rave by Peter A. Levine conveys Van Der Kolk’s discoveries for why:

This essential book unites the evolving neuroscience of trauma research with an emergent wave of body-oriented therapies and traditional mind/body practices. These new approaches and ancient disciplines build resilience and enhance the capacity to have new empowered bodily (interoceptive) experiences that contradict the previous traumatic ones of fear, overwhelm and helplessness. They go beyond symptom relief, and connect us with our vital energy and here-and-now presence.

The simplicity of receiving nurturing touch during a massage is very healing. The research noted above has thankfully brought the “mind-body” understanding that trauma resides not only in our brain, but also our body, to the forefront. Really: there is no separation between brain/body; our body is our brain is us is our body is our brain! Understanding this is clearly crucial to creating an effective treatment plan for healing trauma.

It follows that demand for body-oriented therapies will continue to rise as more people begin to understand the multi-level impact of trauma. It will benefit massage therapists/bodyworkers greatly to have an idea of how to handle a client in crisis or with a history of sexual abuse. Our clients will already be using a lot of personal strength to take one day at a time. We need to be a facilitative part of a client’s healing process, not an impedement.  I hope what I’ve shared can help anyone serve their community better.