Sometimes self-massage tools like foam rollers release more than tight muscles and trigger points.
In 2005, Joy Keller’s body was a mess.
“I was in constant pain, I walked with a severe limp, and my life felt like it was falling apart,” says the executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal.
Tired of the constant battle with pain, she sought support from a massage practitioner who specialized in trigger point therapy.
“When he pressed a spot on my abdomen, I felt what seemed to be a completely foreign emotion (at least in the context of that moment), and yet it was undoubtedly mine,” recalls Keller, who is also a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and Reiki Master in San Diego. “I became overwhelmed with emotion, in fact. I felt as if I was drowning or falling, and a surge of tears came over me. He stopped to check in with me and made me feel it was safe to cry. So I did. It was very cathartic. I felt as if he’d ‘unlocked’ trapped emotions connected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse from my childhood. I’d been in talk therapy, but this took everything to a completely new level. It seemed we’d accessed some very deep, trapped emotions that needed to be released and processed.”
Keller says she experienced what experts refer to as a somato-emotional release —an emotional response resulting from a form of body-based therapy. While foam rollers and massage balls may not be equivalent to the skilled touch of a trained therapist, their use is spreading through the fitness world, and instructors and trainers need to be aware that emotional responses can occur when participants use these tools. It’s also important for fitness pros to know how to address emotions—within scope of practice—should they occur.
The Emotion-Pain Connection Explored
A link between the physical body and the emotional body has been drawn in one way or another since ancient times. In the modern era, radical Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich began as early as the 1930s to connect tension in the body with emotional stress. Interest in the relationship gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, led by pioneers in body psychotherapy and deep-tissue work. Ida Rolf, creator of Rolfing® Structural Integration and a teacher at Esalen Institute in California, was notable among them.
Reich and Rolf “pointed out that it’s not just the mind impacting the body through biochemical pathways,” said Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains (Churchill Livingstone 2014) and a student of both Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais, in a 2013 interview with The Huffington Post (Smith 2013). “The body impacts the mind as well, because we tend to hold unresolved emotional trauma in the tissues.”
Another of Rolf’s students, osteopath Robert Ward, is credited with coining the term myofascial release in the 1960s, and the following decade John F. Barnes, PT, developed the Myofascial Release Approach®. Around the same time, research by Craniosacral Therapy developer John E. Upledger, DO, and biophysicist Zvi Karni, PhD, suggested that stored trauma—either physical or emotional—could lead to movement dysfunction and eventually to chronic pain, and that this could potentially be eased by touch or massage (Erickson 2003).
In his book SomatoEmotional Release: Deciphering the Language of Life (North Atlantic Books 2002), Upledger wrote, “Somato emotional release is the expression of emotion that, for reasons deemed appropriate by some part of a person’s nonconscious, has been retained, suppressed and isolated within the soma (body). Observation of the SER process suggests that independent retention of the energy or memory of both physical and emotional trauma is frequently accomplished by specific body parts, regions or viscera.”
Adam Wolf, PT, LMT, president of REAL pt, in Chicago, puts it this way: “The body is an integrated unit, and mind, body and spirit can’t be separated out. When people experience trauma—emotional or psychological or physical—it all gets programmed together in the motor cortex and motor control center, located in the cerebellum. The pattern gets locked, and based on the principles of neuroplasticity, emotions can get stored in the pattern or muscle or movement.”
Sue Hitzmann, MS, CST, and founder of the MELT Method®, has personal experience with SER. Many years ago, when her father was losing his fight with cancer, Hitzmann developed debilitating foot pain. She went to massage therapist Barbara Chang for bodywork, and during the session, Chang surprised Hitzmann by centering on her nose.
What happened next was another surprise. “I had a memory pop up in my mind of my dad cracking my nose back into place when I was a kid after I’d gotten hit in the face with a softball,” Hitzmann recalls.
Chang observed a change in her client’s demeanor and encouraged Hitzmann to say out loud what had gone through her mind.
“The next morning I woke up and my foot didn’t hurt anymore,” she says. “That was my first introduction to understanding what it is when you can have pain that’s being caused by an emotional holding.”
When Emotion Presents During Myofascial Release
The goal of myofascial release should never be to lead clients toward an experience of sadness or anger. However, emotions may well up.
Mauricio Gooiker, a TriggerPoint™ master trainer and a personal lifestyle coach located in the Appledoorn area of the Netherlands, remembers facilitating a particularly emotional TriggerPoint release session.
“[My client] had a locked upper back. When we released the tension in his thoracic spine and upper back, he suddenly became much more aware of new space, more room to breathe freely—and he began to cry.”
Hitzmann has seen many participants become emotional during her MELT classes. “They are in the middle of doing a rebalancing sequence, and all of a sudden they just well up with tears. And they want to jump off the roller and run out of the room because they’re embarrassed.”
Says Hitzmann, “After the events of 9/11, I worked on thousands of people who were dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder. The way that I would get [the stress] out of their bodies was by going through the fascial tissue. This is the tissue that gets locked down, dries out and holds memories. The tissue remembers.”
How to Handle an Emotional Situation
So what do you do when a client or group exercise participant suddenly becomes overwhelmed with emotion during a myofascial release session? Here are ways to transform a potentially uncomfortable and frightening situation into a positive one.
Discuss the possibilities. Santa Monica–based Jill Miller, creator of Yoga Tune Up®, says she doesn’t “do Therapy Ball rolling with the intention of making my people cry.” However, she informs participants that rolling certain parts of the body may yield an emotional response—and this is normal. She makes sure students know that participation in rolling is optional.
Give permission to feel. When Hitzmann leads MELT sessions, one thing she always says is, “Give yourself permission to go into your body and sense what you feel.” She believes that many people avoid such self-assessment, which can inhibit their growth.
“The missing link in chronic pain relief is to address the emotional aspect of it.”
Listen. “When a client is having an emotional response, I think it’s something that should be honored,” says Keller. “Temporarily stop whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t gloss over it and pretend that nothing is happening unless the client gives you clear cues that he/she prefers to move on. Don’t pry.”
Let emotions happen. “I let people experience their emotions and have them reflect on them, much as you do when you meditate or observe your inner world,” says Gooiker. “Then we talk about it as if it’s really a material object.”
Let the client lead. Karol Ward, LCSW, TEDx speaker and author, suggests giving the person time to process what he’s feeling before proceeding with any plans. Ask him if there is something he feels he needs and if there is something you can do to support him.
“Let the client tell you, and if he needs to leave the workout, let him, and then circle back to reschedule,” Ward advises. “Don’t try to schedule another session in that moment unless the client says he wants to.”
Create a “safe” place. In a group environment, you may not be able to offer significant personal support to an individual experiencing an emotional moment, but you can let her know she is in a safe place, says Miller.
“I’ll bring over a box of tissues and quietly say, ‘Take a moment for yourself.’ I usually don’t have people leave the room. But I also say, ‘If you need to take a moment outside the classroom, you’re more than welcome to do that.’”
Get educated. Hitzmann advocates learning more about the mind-body connection to better understand clients’ reactions to various stimulus.
“Read books outside of general fitness,” she suggests. “Read Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine (Simon & Schuster 1999) by Candace B. Pert, PhD. There are so many things that you can read to really learn how a body functions, positively and negatively.”
Miller agrees, adding that self-discovery is essential to being a supportive coach: “The more work you do on yourself, the better you’re going to be at facilitating all . . . the benefits [that] self-myofascial-release work [can offer] your students.”
Know when to refer. “If I have clients who always cry when I get them on the balls, I’ve got to send them to a counselor,” says Miller. “It’s always a good idea to have a network of counselors and therapists you can refer to.”
Support, Don’t Fix
There’s no telling if a myofascial release session will trigger a somato-emotional response or not, but the possibility is there. If it happens, the greatest role you can play in order to provide a safe, empowering environment is to offer complete support to the client or student, says Miller.
“Instructors don’t have to fix or find solutions for the client’s emotional issues,” says Ward. “It can feel awkward or overwhelming to witness a client release emotion, but by taking cues from your clients, you can find a way to offer your supportive presence through respectful silence, nonverbal communication and neutral statements.”