Any person receiving bodywork can experience what is known in the industry as a “healing crisis”. Such an occurrence can be frightening, both for the client and for the therapist. Learn how to identify the symptoms of a healing crisis and what steps for prevention you can suggest to clients.
Also known as the “Herxheimer Reaction”, a healing crisis occurs when the body tries to eliminate toxins at a faster rate than they can be disposed of. The more toxic one’s bodily systems are, the more severe the detoxification experience, or healing crisis. This reaction signifies that the bodywork received is working and that your client’s body is going through the process of cleaning itself of impurities, toxins and imbalances. While a healing crisis is temporary, it can occur immediately, within several days or several weeks after a bodywork session. Symptoms usually pass within several days, but can persist for several weeks. Often the crisis will come after a client feels their very best.
A healing crisis is a reaction to previously sequestered toxins being systemically released. Such poisons can be stored in all kinds of tissues, primarily muscle, fascia and adipose. During manipulation, whether it’s deep tissue massage, energy work or reflexology, these poisons are squeezed out of the holding body tissue into the bloodstream. This sudden increase in blood toxicity causes a toxicity reaction, until the body is able to effectively process and eliminate the poisons. While not a pleasant experience, a healing crisis signifies that a cleansing and purifying process is underway.
While cleansing can be physical, emotional or spiritual, a true healing crisis typically involves all three of these aspects. Due to the body’s fascinating ability to store memories and emotions in the tissues, their recollection or release can accompany the manipulation of those tissues. Most practitioners refer to the surfacing of memories or emotions without physical symptoms as an emotional release. An emotional release is a typical component of most healing crises.
Most people have some emotional issues or traumas occurring sometime in their life. Whenever an emotional trauma or situation happens it is stored in the nervous system. Though we may think we are over it and not even remember it, the mark or impression could still be there and negatively affect our health and psychology. During any form of bodywork it is possible to release these stored issues or traumas. An emotional release may give rise to feelings of anger, grief or another emotion. This release is indicative of a healthful body transformation, where the body clears itself of the negativity previously stored within.
Learning to suppress our feelings typically causes them to go into our physical bodies. The tensing of neck muscles will prohibit frowning, holding one’s breath can replace crying and jaw clenching may stifle yelling. When these patterns are repeated, emotional suppression becomes a habit, the unconscious mind takes over, and the body becomes a storehouse for unexpressed, unconscious feelings.
Suppressed emotions and traumas are a key factor in the development of muscular tension, high blood pressure, heart disease, immune weakness and other diseases. Most practitioners agree that real healing begins when this suppression is released, freeing the body to heal at the deepest level.
What are the symptoms of a healing crisis?
While each individual’s body is unique, there are some common symptoms typical of a healing crisis. Below is a list of Herxheimer Reaction symptoms most often experienced after receiving bodywork:
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low-grade fever
- Joint and muscle aches
- An odd or metallic taste in the mouth
- Muscle cramps
- Skin eruptions
- Intense emotional states
- Increased sweating, urination or defecation
Is this a healing crisis?
After a session, a client may experience a number of uncomfortable symptoms. In order to feel confident that this is a healing crisis, and not stemming from different etiology, the following causes should be ruled out:
- Low blood sugar – A hypoglycemic reaction can cause light-headedness, dizziness, nausea and fatigue.
- Pregnancy – A new pregnancy can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting and fatigue.
- Starting to get sick – Catching a cold can cause dizziness, headache, feverishness, nausea, achiness and fatigue.
If the therapist is unsure of the reasoning behind a client’s maladies, and the client is concerned, refer them to their physician.
How do you prevent or minimize its course?
The best strategy to prevent or minimize a healing crisis is to support and facilitate the body’s toxin removal and encourage emotional health.
The best ways to facilitate toxin removal are:
- Hydration – Drinking extra water immediately following and sequentially after bodywork to aid the body in toxic elimination through urination and perspiration.
- Fiber – Increasing dietary fiber will support the gastrointestinal system’s swift removal of waste via the bowels.
- Sleep – Feelings of fatigue or sleepiness are best honored. Listening to one’s body by getting the rest it asks for will help the body in its recovery process.
During an emotional release, the most important item a therapist can lend is a safe environment while being supportive of the client’s process. Since bodyworkers are not trained as psychotherapists, below are some suggestions to best convey safety and support:
- Grounding – If appropriate, maintain a grounding touch with your client. This can take different forms, depending on the therapist’s level of education and comfort around grounding.
- Listening – Focus on listening, not counseling. Clients often need to verbalize their feelings to be able to move past them.
- It’s okay – Confirm to your client that an emotional release is not only okay, but it will amplify the effectiveness of your session. This can be prefaced by stating that when an emotion surfaces, the body is saying it’s time to let it go.
Most releases surface and resolve quickly. However, if a client exhibits frequent, strong emotional releases during sessions, or if the client’s anxiety or fear increases as a result of bodywork, it’s important they seek the help of a professional counselor.
A healing crisis may take both bodyworker and client by surprise, but being prepared for its possibility can be a freeing, learning experience. A therapist may wish to discuss this aspect of healing with their client prior to a session, or may find this information helpful during or following a client’s healing crisis. The release of the old and in with the new is what physical and emotional healing are all about, and the welcoming of this transformation opens the door to leading a healthier, more conscious, life.
www.experts.about.com, Experts: Massage, Christopher Hall, About, Inc., 7/27/05.
www.falconblanco.com, The Healing Crisis, FalconBlanco, 2006.
www.massagetherapy.com, Freedom for Feelings, Cathy Ulrich, Body Sense Magazine, August/Winter 2005.
www.nihadc.com, Massage and Somatic Emotional Release, National Integrated Health Associates, 2006.
www.positivehealth.com, Reflexology – A Second Look, Ingrid Sahai, Positive Health Productions, Inc., 2006.