Pain can be an effective distraction. Bad relationships or problematic jobs often come with mysterious aches and aggravations that tend to clear up like magic when the larger problem is resolved.
But in some cases, unexpressed emotions can get trapped in the body long-term and may even mask serious trauma. Rolfing, the bodywork that uses soft-tissue manipulation to release tension, can help. As Rolfers focus on loosening the fascia, the tissue that envelops your muscles, they inevitably get at deep feelings, explains Sam Adams, a Rolfing practitioner based in New York City.
Adams remembers one client, for example, who broke into tears when he began working on her face. The client eventually explained that she had suffered a broken nose during a violent political uprising in Brazil. Through the Rolfing work, she learned how to relax the muscles in that part of her body to get at the source of her pain, says Adams.
Michael Polon, a Rolfer in Denver, says he has seen clients make important mind-body discoveries just by paying attention to the differences in their body after a session. One client, he says, found she had not let go of grief for her father many years after his death. Instead, she developed a pattern of tension around her neck and shoulders that affected her breathing. After a few sessions, during which Polon worked to free up her ribs and allow for more expansive breathing, the client declared that "she had not breathed so fully and felt so light since her loss," according to Polon.
What to look for
Trapped emotions can cause varied sensations, Polon explains. "Emotions can cause tightness, fatigue, or a loss of sensation," he says. A tight jaw may be a sign of anger or stress, a constricted chest might hold untapped emotions and grief, and problems with your feet or legs might signal a sense of not feeling supported. Generally speaking, however, "where we hold emotion is not something we all experience the same way," he says.
The next time you're in a heightened emotional state, take a moment to notice the area of your body where the feeling is manifested. Does your chest feel tight, for example, or do your feet feel numb? And as you experience different emotions, think about your long-term aches and pains. "Bring more consciousness to the coupling of emotions and physical sensation," says Polon. By making such connections, he says, "you can make a choice instead of simply reacting to everything that comes across your emotional radar."
To find a Rolfer near you, go to rolf.org. (For serious emotional issues, Rolfing is best used along with psychotherapy, says Adams.)