Using Bodywork to Release Emotions

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Emo­tions and Bodywork

The Bodywork Connection

Remember, Bodywork Theory suggests that illness is the result of “tightness,” which blocks the natural flow of energy. The chief cause of “tightness” is the repression of feelings, sensations, and emotions.

We are taught to “get hold of our­selves,” to force down our feel­ings, to “swal­low” them. The resul­tant mus­cle tight­en­ing seems like a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the body, until Body­work and Breath­work come along to loosen things up. As soon as that hap­pens, the emo­tion begins to flow.

Here are a few examples:

One client talked about sad­ness over her not so func­tion­al rela­tion­ship with her father; this led to tears and deep sad­ness. Back in my ther­a­pist train­ing days, I had attempt­ed to extract some anger by push­ing on her with a large pil­low, ask­ing her to imag­ine the pil­low as dad. She got a bit angry, then imme­di­ate­ly shift­ed to tears.

I was a “baby ther­a­pist;” I dropped the pil­low, and encour­aged the tears. The anger was ignored — I guess I was­n’t ready to help with that.

A few years lat­er, she returned, with the same issue. I sug­gest­ed Body­work along with talk therapy.

I was work­ing on her upper back, between her shoul­ders; this is a clas­sic place for the stor­age of anger. She was uncom­fort­able and wig­gling around a bit, and was also try­ing to cry — a frus­tra­tion for her was that she was quite able to make cry­ing sounds, but no tears came.

It was almost like there were no tears left — she was sort of doing the “cry­ing” equiv­a­lent of the dry heaves. In past ses­sions, she would “try hard­er,” frus­trate her­self and then escape into her head, where she’d give her­self grief for not crying.

How­ev­er, her chi felt dif­fer­ent this time. I start­ed to focus on feel­ing her anger; to feel for her anger.

I moved down her spine, and the wig­gling increased. I final­ly reached the indents on her butt where the sci­at­ic nerve is close to the sur­face. I pushed, hard.

An amaz­ing thing hap­pened. She pushed up, hard into my elbow, and start­ed to make noise. Her whole body tensed.

Then she said, “Everything is caught in my throat.”

This is a per­fect demon­stra­tion of how the body is con­di­tioned to clamp down.

Her throat con­strict­ed to keep her from let­ting the sound of her anger out. 

I pushed hard­er, she pushed hard­er, and soon the sounds came, as well as pound­ing and kick­ing. This went on for around 20 minutes.

After­ward, she said, 

“When I was grow­ing up, it was OK to go to your room and cry; it was nev­er OK to get angry. It sim­ply was­n’t allowed.”

There it is: her descrip­tion of the begin­ning of her repres­sion, start­ing years and years ago. The tight­en­ing down, the clamp­ing down. The anger, seething away in there, blocked, held down, and, because such tight­ness numbs us, it often goes unnoticed. 

In oth­er words, it does­n’t “phys­i­cal­ize” into observ­able behav­iour. It may, though, show up as high blood pressure. 

A coin­ci­dence? I think not.

Anoth­er client had done a ton of Body­work. She’d dealt with her grief — her hus­band had been killed in a car wreck a few years ear­li­er, and our focus had been on her chest, where her unex­pressed grief “lived.” Many were the days that she screamed and cried out her sadness.

She returned after a year.

As in the past, I start­ed on her upper back and chest, and noth­ing much hap­pened. Then, my instincts led me to her stom­ach mus­cles. This is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly easy area to work with, as it’s hard to apply pres­sure to the mus­cles with­out squish­ing inter­nal organs, a def­i­nite no-no.

Here’s a pic­ture of a good release method.

(And here’s the video of “belly work.”)

It would not be inac­cu­rate to say, “All hell broke loose.” She screamed and screamed. Final­ly, she reached down and lift­ed my hands off. “I need a break. Stop.” I did. 

5 min­utes lat­er, dur­ing which time she sim­ply shook, I asked her if I could rest my hand on her stom­ach, using no pres­sure. She agreed. 

5 sec­onds after I touched her stom­ach, the scream­ing and thrash­ing start­ed again. She stopped after anoth­er 10 minutes.

Now, the interesting thing for me was that at no time, before, during or after, did she have a clue as to what she was screaming about. These was no “what” or “why” connected to the experience. 

Indeed, the best she could do was to say, “You know that scene in the movie “Alien where the crit­ter hops out of the guy’s chest? That’s what that felt like.”

Lordy, lordy, lordy, we need to get this stuff out of our sys­tems. And the sad fact is, most peo­ple will go to ear­ly graves filled with enough unex­pressed emo­tion to pow­er a small town.

Express­ing Emotions

Here’s a little procedure to help you to identify, name and express your emotions. Give it a try!

It’s best to do this with a part­ner, but if you can’t, do it yourself!

  1. Name the feel­ing. Find the feel­ing in your body, ask your body what it is, and then name it, out loud. This actu­al­ly might be dif­fi­cult, as we are not taught to dif­fer­en­ti­ate emo­tions.
    • A client, who had expressed anger all over the place, for years, spent the week dump­ing the anger (see below) and not stuff­ing any­thing. He said, “After I let the anger go, I was aware of a ton of oth­er feel­ings — sad­ness, grief, con­fu­sion.” Pri­or to this expe­ri­ence, all he could iden­ti­fy was his anger.
  2. With a part­ner, say, “I’m feel­ing (fill in the blank) right now over (what­ev­er just hap­pened to you) and I’d like to get it out. Will you stay with me while I do that?”
    • If your part­ner agrees, let your part­ner know where you feel the feel­ing (in my back, my shoul­ders, my stom­ach, etc.) With­out a part­ner, just say and do all of this yourself.
  3. Now, find a qui­et place. If you have kids and haven’t taught them about express­ing emo­tions, it might be best if they aren’t around, ini­tial­ly. (see below, on teach­ing kids.)
    • Exam­ple: go into the base­ment rec. room after the kids go to bed on the sec­ond floor — and it might be even bet­ter with the kids out of the house. 
  4. Decide how you want to express the feeling.
  5. Set a timer for 3 to 5 min­utes. Start express­ing. Use colour­ful words and lan­guage. Although many will find this dif­fi­cult, as many have been taught “Keep qui­et!’, vol­ume is essen­tial to get­ting the feel­ing out. So, don’t just cry, sob. Don’t just swear, scream. Don’t just whine — real­ly, real­ly, loud­ly whine. Stomp. Hit the mat­tress. Flail. Rock. Just let go. Real­ly lose it.
  6. When the timer goes off, ask your­self if you are done. If you are, thank your part­ner. Or thank your­self. (You may want to do that any­way.) If you are not done, or have anoth­er emo­tion to work on, reset the timer and go at it again.


  • Anger can often be expressed by yelling and stomp­ing one’s feet. If you think you need to hit, try beat­ing a mat­tress with a ten­nis rack­et. Or, go buy a heavy bag to clob­ber. Or dri­ve nails into a board.
  • Sad­ness needs Kleenex, and a pil­low to hug, and lots of breath and sound.
  • Anx­i­ety might want to express by cud­dling with some­one, under a com­forter. Or, in it’s extreme man­i­fes­ta­tions, you may want to go throw up. Anx­i­ety is a stom­ach issue.

Following the exercises, above, talk with someone about your feelings and this experience. We need to do this (regularly, and especially in the face of tragedy) in order to keep from blowing a fuse or actually hurting someone.

What About Kids?

Kids need to be taught to do the above work, and always with an adult present to guide them.

For exam­ple, when kids hit peo­ple, they need a Time Out, fac­ing a blank cor­ner. After they spend 5 min­utes sit­ting, and then spend 30 sec­onds being com­plete­ly still and calm, there is the sim­ple reminder, “We don’t hit peo­ple” (or cats, or whatever.) 

15 min­utes lat­er, ask, “Are you still angry? (sad, what­ev­er.) Let’s go work on it.” Then, fol­low the above ideas.

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