Muscle Memories: The Mechanics of Emotions Stored in the Body

Massage therapists have a saying: the issues are in the tissues. Looking at this phrase, clearly it is applicable to a profession that releases stress and relieves pain in the soft tissue structures of the body. But it is not often that we refer to physical ailments with this rhyme. Most often, we are discussing trapped emotions and memories.

“Memories are stored in the brain. How in the world could an emotion be stored in the body?!” you might be wondering. In a 2014 research proposal, the author, Paolo Tozzi of the School of Osteopathy CROMON in Italy, hypothesizes on just that. Is it possible to carry memory and emotion in ways that are not neurological? If so, what mechanisms would create this storage?

Tozzi began this line of inquiry after noticing a phenomenon known as emotional release. An emotional release is a client experience triggered during bodywork (massage, energy work, and other body based therapies) that is characterized by the sudden onset of memories and/or strong emotions. Clients usually feel a great sense of relief, release, or resolution of persistent pains after this occurs. Ultimately, emotional releases are signs of healing brought about by the manipulation of muscle and fascia.

To sus out the link between muscle and memory, the obvious place to start is structure - which is where Tozzi looked for answers. He dug up research on the fascial system, the extracellular matrix, epigenetics, chemical secretions, and water all of which point to the likelihood that different emotional states can affect the arrangements, shape, and textures these elements adopt which in turn could effectively build the memory into the tissues. Most of his focus was on the different fascial elements. In one branch of his research, he uncovered a paper which suggested that a physical “emotional scar” could be formed within the fascia after substance P (a nociceptor released to signal pain) released during an emotional trauma “alter[s] the collagen structures into a specific hexagonal shape.”

Massage realigns imbalanced and tangled fascia as well as decreases the chemical effects of noxious stimuli. With this in mind, it makes sense that bodywork could tease out memories caught in misaligned tissues. Interestingly enough, the paper does not broach the topic of what a memory is and the common definitions all revolve around its use or the encoding process, not the actual substance. This means that what is being released from the tangled structures remains largely a mystery at least in terms of the official scientific doctrine. (Here is my understanding of what a memory is made.)

Despite some unanswered questions, Tozzi’s research does a lot to further our understanding of 1) how massage and other bodyworks can help us heal our bodies and our minds, and 2) how our emotional states and experiences have real impacts on our structure and function. Questions or comments? Leave them below in the comments section or reach me directly at (856) 857-7535.

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