Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that manifests in the wake of a traumatic situation or experience. A wide range of events may prompt the development of PTSD, including involvement in a violent crime, experiencing natural or man-made disasters, participating in military combat, or even losing a loved one.
Sufferers of PTSD experience symptoms that are psychological, behavioral and physical. They may suffer nightmares, feelings of depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, and migrating physical pain. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, PTSD affects approximately 8 per cent of the general population and 10 per cent of war zone veterans.
As the number of PTSD patients in Canada grows, so does our understanding of the scope of this disorder - and the search for effective, holistic treatment models. In recent years, Swedish massage therapy has emerged as a beneficial complementary treatment for PTSD patients, offering much needed relief from painful symptoms and supporting the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic approaches.
Patients who suffer from PTSD are often stuck in “fight or flight” mode. Clinically high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine are continually pumped into their bloodstream, which results in a semi-permanent state of hypervigilance and neural hyper-reactivity. They often feel frightened, threatened and unsafe.
The long, gentle strokes of Swedish massage have been found particularly useful in alleviating some of this accumulated and unabating anxiety. A staple of massage college curricula, Swedish massage has been proven to lower the body’s stress hormones, while increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine, which contribute to an overall feeling of wellbeing.
With its capacity to calm an overactive adrenal system and reduce muscle tension, Swedish massage can break the cycle of “fight or flight,” facilitating more restful sleep, and enhancing quality of life for PTSD patients.
Patients with PTSD often engage in psychotherapeutic treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy. Both approaches help patients develop coping skills with which to face and ultimately neutralize recurring fears. The calming effects of Swedish massage have been found particularly helpful in combination with psychotherapy because as stress hormone levels fall, patients are better able to better concentrate on, and get the most out of their talk therapy sessions.
Massage therapy following a talk session may also be extremely beneficial in soothing patients who have come face-to-face with traumatic memories and need help restoring a sense of calm and hormonal equilibrium.
Not all PTSD sufferers are comfortable receiving massage therapy. Patients who have experienced physical abuse may be resistant to touch, and may even find Swedish massage too invasive to bear. Others may initially welcome massage, but then change their minds part way through a treatment session.
Massage therapy training places a strong emphasis on communication between RMT and patient as a pillar of best practice. Maintaining an ongoing and open dialogue is particularly important when treating patients with PTSD. Because PTSD generates feelings of helplessness and fear, patients may suddenly feel threatened - as if their very lives are in jeopardy - while undergoing massage therapy. They may become angry, confused, nauseated, experience a flash-back, or withdraw from communication altogether.
It’s important for RMTs to consider how they will handle such an occurrence, including discussing possible contingencies with the patient during the assessment process.
Although treatment may present some challenges, when identified as an appropriate complementary approach, massage therapy can offer a profound sense of peace and re-connection to those who suffer from chronic psychological shock. This is inspiring for both students who are currently pursuing massage therapist training, and patients with PTSD in search of natural and holistic long-term relief.