Childhood Trauma and Massage

Trauma is a “stressful event or events that are ongoing or unpredictable that result in overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness”. Trauma can be caused by natural disasters/events (like tornadoes, earthquakes, fire, flood, explosion) or physical, psychological or emotional injury caused by abuse, neglect and/or willful misconduct.

Everyone responds to traumatic events differently.  Children, for example, sometimes deal with trauma is they simply freezing and become unresponsive, their “fight or flight” basic instincts are engaged.  Hearts pump, breathing goes rapid and shallow, hands perspire, stomachs tighten.  Children lack the ego strengths and cognitive emotional inhibitors necessary to cope with trauma, so they respond with physical hyper-arousal (like ADHD), emotional numbing or reactivity, startle responses, all which can lead to neuro-endocrine abnormalities and developmental delays.

In adults, response to trauma can include aches and pains like headaches & backaches, sudden sweating or heart palpitations, changes in sleep patterns, enhanced startle reflex, fear, anxiety, grief, hyper-alertness, irritability, mood swings, shame, guilt and more.  It’s pretty clear that trauma has significant impact on physical and emotional wellness.

Long term effects

In some cases, in both children and adults, trauma can lead to PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) which manifests itself in flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or nightmares, avoidance and emotional numbing, and physical symptoms like elevated heart rate. Those symptoms can be long lasting.

Childhood trauma and sensory deprivation in child-parent relationships may be an underlying cause of a number of emotional disturbances in children including anxiety, depression, attention deficit, aggression and attachment disorders, and sensory integration dysfunction. Those can carry well into adulthood.

Long term consequences/effects may include:

  • fibromyalgia
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • chronic back pain
  • many forms of arthritis
  • cardiovascular issues
  • ongoing emotional issues

Benefits of massage for trauma sufferers

Studies have shown that nurturing touch and massage by trained professionals can have significant and long-lasting benefits for trauma sufferers from infancy to adulthood.  They may include improvements in:

  • social interaction
  • decreasing tactile aversion
  • decreasing stress hormones
  • feelings of self-worth and value of self
  • ability to self regulate and self soothe
  • healthy growth and development
  • sleep patterns
  • feelings of relaxation

Who shouldn’t receive a massage?

Massage should be avoided if the sufferer has a fever, acute infection, open wounds, low platelet count, vaccinations within 72 hours, or any life-threatening medical condition.  It is best to seek the advice of the healthcare provider before seeking massage for your child (or yourself) if you’re a trauma sufferer.

With trauma massage, privacy, safety and care is of the utmost importance. While these same qualities are important for all clients, children (especially infancy through 18) require a practice of extra special care. A trained therapist should follow a professional code of ethics and be specially trained to better assist clients, their families and other healthcare providers through interactions, but will also ensure you are received as a professional service.

Special care

When practicing massage with persons under 18 years of age, parental consent is always required. In the majority of cases, the parent is physically in the room while the therapy session is in progress. During the session, the focus is on the child and the child’s wishes to stop or change what’s happening in the session are always respected.  The therapist will take special care to understand what massage is and how it might be beneficial.  They might use stories or demonstrate on puppets, or even the parent, to instill confidence and comfort–both of which make the session more effective.

With adults, special care is taken to educate them about the benefits of massage and fully inform them of what you’re doing and why. The therapist keeps an active and open dialogue going during the session and maintains an increased sensitivity to the needs of the client.

The bottom line

Through massage therapy,  basic human needs for safe, nurturing contact are met with often wonderful results. For those suffering childhood trauma (or adult trauma), it provides not only a positive experience of being touched but the effects hold lifelong benefits for the massage recpient and their entire family.

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