Many people experience 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.

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

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

“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.”

To read more about how to support clients when self-massage tools like foam rollers release more than tight muscles and trigger points, please see “When Myofascial Release Gets Emotional” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2016 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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