Massage therapy introduces new mental illness treatments

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Jessica Smith
Fae Ellsworth practices energy work in her office on a client suffering from anxiety-induced lower back pain. (Jessica Smith)

The Utah Department of Health found in 2017 one in three Provo adults suffers from depression. The same survey depicted the number of reported Utah mental illness cases to be consistently higher than the national average over a period of five years. In response, three Provo women specialize in massage techniques aimed at offering relief for mental illness victims.

Fae Ellsworth is a somatic movement educator who specializes in energy work. She said energy work emphasizes the mind’s power over the body, and the body can heal itself if convinced from within that healing is possible. Methods involved include lightly touching the patient and applying light pressure to spark the natural flow of energy within the body.

Ellsworth claims her approach to massage therapy is perfect for individuals who have experienced trauma or sickness or find themselves emotionally fragile. For someone who is very frail, she explained, a traditional massage may be too much.

“With this kind of work, you’re working on the person’s spirit and the body’s wisdom,” Ellsworth said.

She said she once had a World War II veteran enter her office with trouble in the index finger of his right hand. It was the same finger he used to pull the trigger of a gun aimed at the enemy. Determining that the shame he felt from taking so many lives as a soldier was the source of his pain, Ellsworth focused her touch and counseling on releasing the finger from its trauma. She claimed he left her office a completely different person that day.

Ellsworth uses a technique known as guided imagery to help her patients overcome trauma. She encourages a patient to imagine themselves in a beautiful place where they can feel comfortable, inspired and free to release tense emotions. When her patients come to her with physical problems, Ellsworth believes she can dig into their emotional knots without ever kneading a muscle.

Another tool Ellsworth uses is a technique called EMDR. She waves a wand in front of her patient’s eyes while she has them blink, which she said simulates REM sleep. Ellsworth explained such a state mimics dreaming, which creates a flexibility of the mind to welcome positive emotions and expel the negative.

“The first session I did with it, I though it was so hokey,” Ellsworth said. “But I walked in with trauma, and when I walked out, the trauma was gone.”

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study by psychologist Francine Shapiro that initially affirmed the positive therapeutic outcomes of EDMR on patients with a ride range of life experiences. Helping patients confront and process through painful memories, the study concluded, “results in the rapid amelioration of negative emotions, beliefs, and physical sensations.”

Recent reports, however, have refuted this claim. The American Psychological Association published a study that analyzed EDMR’s value in treating PTSD and other anxiety-laden conditions. The results signified that EMDR is just as effective as other exposure techniques.

Jami Stillwell is the owner of massage center The Zen Spot in Provo. Her expertise is Thai massage, which draws similarities to yoga in its assisted stretching and breath work. Stillwell said she believes this particular kind of massage work offers patients the chance to “step into their bodies,” as a professional does the work of bending their bodies into traditional yoga poses.

“One thing that makes the experience of a Thai massage very different from a typical massage is that the client stays fully clothed for the whole session,” Stillwell said. “For anxiety, this can help clients feel more comfortable and less exposed or vulnerable during treatment.”

Stillwell said the most common issues her patients experience are depression and anxiety. She says massage therapy is a safe space and distracts individuals from destructive thoughts and feelings.

“Massage therapy helps the body undo anxiety-related triggering of a fight-or-flight response and settle back into its normal rhythm,” Stillwell said. “Clients can step away from the repetitive and intrusive thoughts and worries inherent to anxiety and experience a quiet mind.”

Rebecca Douglas has been a traditional massage therapist for more than 20 years. She practices different forms of massage which, in her opinion, help alleviate the stress of anxiety and depression. She performs traditional deep-tissue massage, Thai massage, reflexology and other various forms according to patients’ needs.

“I do reflexology on people’s feet,” Douglas said. “There are points on the feet that correspond with different parts of the body, so just having your feet or your hands or your ears rubbed is going to benefit your whole body. It helps with depression and anxiety. It helps with almost anything.”

From her experience with widows, the elderly and even young adults who have lived away from family for a long time, Douglas emphasized the importance of frequent human touch.

“A lot of people are touch deprived, so this is a very healthy form of touch,” Douglas said. “I always believe before I touch someone, I ought to pray first, because I believe it’s an honor, and I want them to be able to feel whatever they need through my touch.”

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