What is massage?

Harking back thousands of years, with roots in ancient China, Greece, and beyond, massage involves manipulating muscles and other soft tissues to enhance health and well-being. By stroking, kneading, applying pressure, and using other techniques, massage therapists can purportedly not only relieve muscle tension but also affect the flow of blood and lymph, calm the nervous system, and promote other benefits that span a range of systems, both body and mind. Some forms of massage are performed while the client is undressed (and covered by a sheet except for the area being worked on), while others allow the wearing of clothing.

Some people in the withdrawal community have found various forms of massage to be valuable in loosening rigid muscles, promoting relaxation, relieving pressure, easing pain, soothing nerves, or just treating themselves to some pampering. When it comes to its use during psychiatric drug withdrawal, never was the suggestion to “listen to your body” more relevant than in the case of therapeutic massage. People’s bodies and preferences for touch are wildly different, and when you add in the sensitivities and symptoms that can accompany the process of coming off a drug, you’ve got a lot of variables in the mix.

Some people who are navigating withdrawal report that having a deep tissue massage is too painful, while others find too light a touch to be irritating. Some say that any type of hands-on massage is too stimulating, guaranteed to rev up their nervous system and cause their symptoms to flare. There are some who swear by energy techniques such as Reiki or craniosacral therapy as the only form of touch that is suited for healing a highly sensitive nervous system, while others find that energy work does nothing for them. Many find that their response to massage changes a great deal depending on where they are in the withdrawal process.

If someone has never had a professional massage before or if it’s been a while, some people suggest starting with a gentler technique and easing one’s way up to a deeper (or more stimulating) approach if desired and if tolerated by the body. Speaking to the therapist ahead of the session (and during, if needed) is often recommended, not only to decide what kind of massage would be best suited, but also to inform the therapist about any withdrawal symptoms one may have as well as potential triggers. Other requests or preferences can also be discussed, such as using an unscented massage lotion.

Needless to say, after experiencing a massage or two, should symptoms seem to increase (beyond a point that could be attributed to a normal post-treatment soreness, say), many people find it best to put this technique aside for now.

A word of caution: Some people undergoing withdrawal find that any type of hands-on massage is too stimulating and is guaranteed to rev up their nervous system and cause their symptoms to flare. Please note that a number of people have reported that having a therapeutic massage, particularly a vigorous one, during the withdrawal process not only increased their symptoms, but also caused them harm and set their progress back significantly. The range of experiences with massage in withdrawal varies widely, and may be different for the same person at different times during their recovery.

Where can I find more information?

Below are some very brief descriptions of a few of the most popular types of massage. There are many other types available. It’s common for massage therapists to be trained in more than one technique and to tailor their approach to fit your needs, often combining more than one modality. Be sure to research on your own and ask your potential massage therapist any questions you may have. Two sources to check out might be The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) or Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP).

  • Swedish massage generally uses light to medium pressure to induce relaxation and relieve stress.
  • Deep tissue massage is akin to Swedish massage, but gets into deeper levels of muscle to release knots and muscle tension.
  • Trigger point therapy is aimed at releasing tight areas of muscle that refer pain to other areas. The client may be called on to offer feedback and breathe deeply while the trigger point is being pressed.

To find a certified massage therapist in your area, in addition to word of mouth (which is often considered the best way) one resource to try is The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA).