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How being a Highly Sensitive Person has shaped my approach to Massage and Bodywork

I’ve given and received a lot of Ortho-Bionomy in the last several days and had some interesting conversations with colleagues and clients and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about WHY I do this work and about SENSITIVITY.

Some of you may know that I identify as an ‪#‎HSP‬ (Highly Sensitive Person). I’ve lived in a body with a highly attuned nervous system my whole life. It’s who I am. (If you don’t know what this means, I suggest checking out the work of Dr. Elaine Aron and Ane Axford). Having a highly attuned nervous system means I experience and notice the finest details of environmental and sensory input — from touch to sound to smell to taste — anything you can feel or experience with the senses. These experiences impact me deeply and I know from consciously exploring this trait for a while that not everyone experiences the world in this way. In fact, the research says it’s only 20% of the population who does.

So, how does this relate to my bodywork approach?

It means everything. It’s the reason why Ortho-Bionomy entered my life, changed it completely, and I’ve chosen to study it as much as possible. It’s why I’ve studied the Trager Approach and NeuroKinetic Therapy, two other non-invasive ways of working deeply with the body. It’s why I work slowly and am able to pick up on subtle shifts happening in the body, both physically and energetically, even when I’m doing deeper work. It’s why I’m able to work gently and with depth.

What I’ve found for myself and other HSPs I’ve spoken with or worked with is that the HSP body doesn’t need as much when it comes to hands-on therapy. Is deeper work sometimes ok and sometimes needed? Absolutely. But for myself and other sensitives, it seems a WORLD of possibilities opens when you receive that first truly GENTLE touch. I know it did for me. I think most of us have experienced or been exposed to more of the opposite, or picked up the sense that we need or should need deep, invasive work to heal our body and release pain. That maybe the work itself should hurt in order to be effective.

For anyone, I think the opposite can be true. But I believe that especially for HSPs, giving yourself the chance to experience touch that meets you where you are, that meets your gorgeous sensitivity with more of the same, can be a truly remarkable, life-changing experience. It is the experience of being SEEN and FELT. And I feel so amazingly fortunate to have been shown more of me through work that is gentle and through gentle practitioners.

And I feel so freakin amazingly fortunate to now be able to share that work, this approach, my sensitivity, with other sensitive bodies. We are such beautiful mirrors for each other.


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  • Yvette
    August 27, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Reply

    I am so relieved to see this! I am a sensitive person and also a massage therapist. I also believe in the healing power of gentle, loving touch. So I truly appreciate what is said here. I am however, looking to learn more about how to take care of my sensitive self after doing massage for others whose energy may be negative due to stress and illness. Would love to hear what you have to say on this.

    Many thanks.

    • Helena
      August 28, 2016 at 1:40 am | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Yvette! You are definitely not alone in this. Not at all. There are so many ways to care for our sensitives selves. I’ve just sent you an email with some ideas for how to approach this : )

  • Llandry
    January 3, 2017 at 6:43 am | Reply

    I have been A massage therapist for 25 years and still.
    Very blessed in this life’s work but still trying to identify with my sensitive nature and doing my best to keep in check especially my balance in self and relations. fSMT graduate and seeming to still be figuring out this issue. HSp is a label and new stuff for me. Is this a defect? I don’t think so just didn’t realize anyone else had or chose to… suffer.. if they chose this. Never knew what this HSP was about, but I think I have had this since birth and felt way too much. I have always been made fun of for this sensitivity, and not really known how to deal with this. with much effort, and exhausted. L

    • Helena
      January 4, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, L., and congratulations on 25yrs as an MT! Amazing. Being an HSP is not a defect. It is simply a genetic trait and includes having a more highly tuned nervous system. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, the research psychologist who coined the term HSP, roughly 20% of the population is an HSP. Many HSPs report being made fun of for their sensitivity, or told they’re “too much.” You are not alone, and I believe — through personal experience and observation — that there are many ways to slowly strengthen our sensitivity and lead with it to create a rich, meaningful life that supports, inspires and nourishes us. If you haven’t checked out Dr. Aron’s book yet, it’s a great place to start. “The Highly Sensitive Person.” Please feel free to reach out with any other questions. You might also like this post that I wrote:
      Yours in sensitivity,

  • Jessica Evans
    October 5, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Reply

    I just came across your article when I Googled “why am I so sensitive to massage?” I have only had a few massages in my life and everyone I’ve been left very sore afterwards. My chiropractor suggested I get one and speak when it’s too much pressure, which I always have but still found myself thinking I needed to bear through a little bit of the pain to get results and it never fails that I am sore in those areas for at least 4 to 5 days afterwards. As a matter of fact I’m sore right now in my shoulders and hips from a massage that happened 2 days ago. My questions are 1) if I get a massage with such light pressure, what would the benefit be? 2) does blood pressure have anything to do with the sensitivity? 3) is there any after care to help with inflammation after a massage?
    Thank you for this article… I’m an energy worker and trauma coach and am grateful for resources that help me connect more with my own body’s healing.

    • Helena
      October 6, 2017 at 2:01 am | Reply

      Hi Jess,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful sharing and questions! I will do my best to address them. First, I’m curious as to why you are seeking massage. It might be that traditional Swedish/Deep Tissue type massage is not what your body will benefit from most right now. And that’s ok. I’m also curious if after the soreness dies down, if you feel some benefit. If the “juice feels worth the squeeze,” so to speak. Or, if you are feeling any benefit during the sessions (e.g. relaxation, pleasure, the enjoyment of contact).

      The point I’m trying to make is that massage isn’t for everyone, no matter how much the pressure is adjusted, and that’s just fine. There are SO many ways to approach the body and, depending on your goals, it might be worth doing a little more research. Ortho-Bionomy and Touch Skills for Trauma are two other ways I practice bodywork, and they tend to work better for folks who are more sensitive to Swedish and Deep Tissue massage. There are many others to explore, too.

      With regard to your questions:
      1) The “part” of the body that manual therapy like massage effects most is the nervous system. Though it feels like your muscles are getting pushed and squished and dug through, even if a therapist is working really deep, there’s no proof that any human can break up adhesions, stretch fascia, etc. Any change in tissue tone, range of motion, etc., is more likely due to the nervous system settling, and you relaxing and letting go. Generally, when folks feel pain, their body braces against it, even if it’s subtle. My belief is that more can be achieved when the body doesn’t feel it has something it has to brace and protect against (e.g. pain). This makes pain in manual therapy unnecessary. That said, some folks just like to feel some kind of pleasant, hurts-so-good pain. This sends a signal to their brain that “it’s working,” and that’s totally valid. But if it’s not working for you, know that that’s fine. You may find that light, slow touch, or bodywork that involves more movement, positioning, etc., is more productive for you than pushing through the tissues. You can read more here if you’d like: or watch my video about this:

      2) I’m not sure of the correlation between blood pressure and sensitivity, but it’s a good question! My observation is general sensitivity increases when chronic pain is involved, if there’s unresolved trauma physiology, etc. And, genetic predisposition may play a role.

      3) You might try heat (hot shower, bath, heating pad), or gentle movement and stretching, walking, staying hydrated. Some folks prefer icing, though I recommend trying heat first. There are muscle rubs and things like that that could provide temporary relief. Here is a long but interesting article on DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness):

      I hope this helps! Please feel free to contact me with any further questions or comments. I write and talk a lot about this kind of stuff via my newsletter and social media avenues, so if you’re interested in staying in the loop, sign up for my newsletter, or ‘like’ my facebook or Instagram pages : )

      Take good care,

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