Pain is usually an alarm that something is wrong, but sometimes both emotional and physical pain is something you have to willingly put yourself through in order to feel better.

I got a deep tissue massage last week. It was something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, but it always seemed like an indulgence. “Why do I deserve a massage?” I’d ask myself. Of course, there’s also the fright of having to schedule something on the phone, and then the pressure to actually show up for the appointment. It’s hard for me to not stress in the anticipation of every new social interaction. An appointment can just eat up a day if you let it.

But, I didn’t stress too much about this. I just did it. It helped that I’d set aside a few days of fun and relaxation anyway. I distracted myself, had a good time. The day of the appointment I took a shower, had a light lunch, and went.

About 10 seconds in, I realized that this was more of a therapy than a frivolous luxury. This wasn’t like getting my nails done, or getting frozen yogurt (although those things can really give me a rest and a boost too.) This was important for my emotional and physical health. I’ve always had tense muscles, and it feels intuitively related to stress and negative emotions. It feels like carrying your heavy heart on your shoulders.

The pain got intense, really intense, but there was reward in the rush of sitting with it, letting it work out. There is nothing like pain to clear your head and bring you into the moment. During the times when the pain was less intense and more pleasurable, I was able to think, to let my mind drift, and it drifted to a place of forgiveness, of letting go. It was like my mind was releasing the trouble that was being squeezed out of my wound up muscles

It’s been so long since I’ve gotten a really good massage, and may not have ever had one as good as the one I got last, week, so the experience felt new. I had discovered a new thing in the land of myself, a new relief.

Later that night, and the whole next day I was sedated, and my muscles ached. It was a good ache. They felt loose, truly loose and unclenched for the first time in a long while, maybe my whole life. “Is this was relaxing is?” I wondered, melting into the couch.

There is little known about why massage works, we just know it does. A few years ago a study indicated that massage somehow stimulates us at the level of our DNA, turning on genes that stimulate cell repair and reduce inflammation. Unlike some alternative therapies that seem to operate at the (still powerful) level of placebo effect, massage seems to be physically transforming and healing us.

Coaxing out emotion pain can also serve us therapeutically. That’s why talk therapy and having a close intimate friend can be so rewarding. Sometimes, just having a good cry to ourselves can be transformative. That’s not to say that all emotional pain is helpful. The difference seems to be between scraping open old wounds to reinfect them and applying pressure “sore” spots to release their tension. One is a toxic endeavor, the other a relief.


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