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Putting energetic touch therapies aside, most types of bodywork involve practitioners touching their clients. Although applying healing techniques with hand, elbow, forearm or even foot contact is expected, people’s reactions to a therapist’s touch can vary greatly. Since reactions to touch can be unpredictable, massage therapists who go out of their way to create a trusting physical bond with their clients are more likely to help those who need a healing experience.
One in Five
Some instantly melt under the hands of a skilled bodyworker, while other massage recipients tense in an automatic protective mode. While there may be many reasons a person is unable to relax and enjoy bodywork, previous emotional scars rank high as a cause.
Regardless of the practitioner’s or client’s awareness of an abusive history, a large proportion of bodywork recipients are likely to be survivors of some kind of touch violation. On average, one of every five clients a practitioner sees has a history of trauma or abuse. These statistics demand sensitivity to how trauma or abuse can impact bodywork clients. The facts also call for establishing a safe-centered touch routine to recruit a client’s trust. With these two approaches, massage therapists can circumvent ethical complications and help affected clients welcome their healing touch.
Intimacy and Sensitivity
Since providing or receiving bodywork is an intimate process, traumatizing events can re-surface. Even in the most professional of settings, intimacy can expose vulnerabilities leading to uncomfortable or awkward situations. In Ethics of Touch, psychologist Melissa Soalt explains a predicament common to survivors who receive bodywork:
“Being present in one’s body is a double-edged sword for survivors: On the one hand, working through the body can stimulate the trauma and evoke confusing or frightening feelings, on the other hand, it is this very ability to be present and in one’s body that ultimately allows one to feel more grounded and thus safer and more in control.”
Massage therapists risk crossing a professional boundary if they attempt to counsel such a client. However, understanding that this dynamic could exist enhances a practitioner’s sensitivity. A bodyworker’s compassion for someone’s emotional response to touch creates an atmosphere of security. In addition to a practice that prioritizes trust between recipient and caregiver, this safe feeling encourages clients to have any reaction that feels right.
There is the possibility that the impact of bodywork on an abused survivor goes beyond what can be handled solely by a massage therapist. Often decipherable by persistent and traumatic flashbacks, withdrawal from reality, personality regression or deepening depression, practitioners must be able to recognize when a mental health professional’s aid should be recruited.
Since predicting who may have trust issues around receiving touch is near impossible, it is in a bodyworker’s best interest to establish a routine that embraces a recipient’s feelings of safety. Because even regular clients can be surprised with a touch inspired fear, never get lazy and skip an element of your safe-centered touch routine. Some considerations to either include in every session or at least keep in your awareness are:
- Ensure clients that their comfort is your priority by encouraging them to communicate with you from the session’s start.
- Avoid any suspicions of your intentions by adhering to the highest level of professional draping standards.
- Give clients the power of choosing what, if any, clothing they wear for a session.
- Be clear about your professional boundaries prior to a session and during one (if necessary) to allay any apprehension.
- As much as possible, maintain continual contact during a session so that your client knows where you are at all times.
- If a client has an emotional release, stay grounded, present and supportive.
Clients who relax once you lay your hands on them should never be taken for granted. Because touch can illicit such a wide range of responses, massage therapists are more likely to be trusted by a trauma survivor with a routine emphasizing professional boundaries and client safety. Clients’ lives can be transformed by a practitioner with awareness of, and sensitivity to, their trust issues, as well as a willingness to enlist a counselor’s help when necessary. By combining these efforts, even the most wounded clients can reap the benefits of your healing touch.
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