Every life has its ups and downs — ordinary stresses woven almost unnoticeably into our daily lives. But a major trauma — death, divorce, violent crime, life-threatening illness, natural disaster, job loss, infertility, or major betrayal — can tear a hole in our world. The emotional fallout can jolt our mental and physical health for years .
Since the tragedies of September we have all had to confront changes in the way we view the world and our place within it. For those who lost family or friends in the destruction, the pain and loss were the greatest and most immediate, yet all of us have been touched in some manner by the increased sense of danger and vulnerability. To our nervous systems, there is an element of stimulation in preparation for flight or fight, but for most of us, apart from heightened awareness, there has been no immediate response to make. Ensuing events: the anthrax incidents, bridge security alerts, the recent plane crash in New York, and even the rule changes for travel have only added to our heightened awareness and sense of lessened security.
Our responses to trauma and stress are individual, yet have many patterns in common [1,6,7]. Initially, we may simply feel numb, dazed, or disoriented. We may flashback to losses or traumas that we have previously experienced. We may feel increased anxiety and insecurity and have difficulty sleeping. We may experience sudden shifts in mood and emotion, and be less willing to extend ourselves and enter into new ventures. These normal emotional responses also affect our bodies, often lowering immune function, sensitizing us to pain, and creating ongoing patterns of muscle tension. Major life changes, whether positive or negative, can open us to increased chance of illness. Paradoxically, our responses may also include increased generosity and turning together to work more closely within our communities.
In some cases the reactions we have may be severe or persistent enough to require professional psychological intervention, even if only to provide us a sheltering vessel and period of time within which to regroup and recenter. Whether or not we require such help, there is much that we can also do for ourselves and for each other.
Especially following trauma, seeking community and a network of support are crucial to our well being. Having multiple aspects to our involvement with community and life cushions the effects of trauma . Being in touch and physically touched helps to sustain and nurture us . Hugs and handholding go a long way. We often need to remind ourselves to be gentle with ourselves, even as we are present and empathetic with each other. By allowing expression to our feelings, by tears and talking and writing them down, we lessen their negative impacts upon us. At the same time, we may have to distance ourselves from too vividly and too kinesthetically re-experiencing events — literally stepping out of the movies in our head or consciously turning them off to lessen our physical responses . By listening to others, we in turn help them to mend themselves. Finally, by taking small positive steps: exercising, drawing, playing a musical instrument, cooking, and otherwise creating, we begin to reaffirm the positive aspects of our lives.
Massage and bodywork also have roles to play in the process of recovery. Perhaps the most immediate and visible mission is in assisting management of stress and fatigue for disaster rescue workers. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg; the opportunities for positive intervention last much longer and extend much further than the immediate disaster sites. While we practitioners of touch are not psychologists, there is much that we can do to nurture with our touch and to facilitate healing. Sometimes, the motion we create and the input we provide to a client’s nervous system allow taut muscles to soften and relax. Often, just in bringing people back to the inner awareness and subtle sensations of their body, what Eugene Gendlin  calls the felt sense, we do much to initiate a healing response that spreads throughout their entire physical and emotional being.
While the task of healing the holes in our world seems beyond our abilities to comprehend, let alone accomplish, it begins with the compassion and caring we give to each other and allow to ourselves . There is much to be accomplished and much that we can do in touch together.
This is [the] secret for today: Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. — Eugene O’Neill (The Great God Brown) References and Reading
1. American Psychological Association, 2001: Warning Signs of Trauma Related Stress, http://www.apa.org/practice/ptsd.html
2. Richard Bandler, Steve Andreas, and Connirae Andreas, 1985: Using Your Brain–For a Change, Real People Pr; ISBN: 0-9112-2627-3.
3. Mariana Caplan, 1998: Untouched — The Need for Genuine Affection in an Impersonal World, Hohm Press, ISBN: 0-9342-5280-7.
4. Eugene Gendlin, 1982: Focusing, Bantam Books; ISBN: 0-5532-7833-9.
5. Thomas W. Myers, 1997: Massage Therapists are Planetary Healers, http://www.mckinnonmassage.com/articles/myers_planetary_healers.html
6. David S. Sobel, M.D., and Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., 1996: The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook, DRx Publishers, Los Altos California, ISBN: 0-9651-0400-1.
7. University of Illinois, 1998: Emotional Reactions to Disasters, http://www.ag.uiuc.edu/~disaster/facts/emotion.html
Keith Eric Grant is head of the Sports and Deep Tissue Massage Program at the McKinnon Massage Institute in Oakland, CA. He is also a computational physicist; an avid dancer; and an advocate of teaching orthopedic massage within the greater contexts of kinesthetic awareness and communication skills.