Severe Emotional Release: What and Why

Whether you are a practicing therapist, or a long-time receiver of bodywork, the concept of a severe emotional release may be foreign to you. The idea that a person can suddenly be overwhelmed with emotion, seemingly from nowhere, is a daunting thought. So how and why does this occur, and what do we do when this wave of emotion erupts? 

Much of this is philosophical in nature and pure conjecture.  However, after being in the field of bodywork for over a decade, I’ve encountered this phenomenon enough to speak on it from a non-scientific point of view. 

The majority of us understand how stress relates to tense muscles.  As you sit in traffic or in that never-ending business meeting, you can feel your shoulders creep up towards your ears.  You’re not actively using your shoulders, yet the stress in your mind is directly translating to stress in your muscles. This simple concept translates to all extreme emotions.  We’ve all heard that it takes less muscles to smile. Funny enough, happy emotions tend to create loose muscles. A relaxed mind is a relaxed body. The inverse of this is the fact that negative emotions cause tension and stress throughout the body.  Through the mind-body connection, this new muscle tension is associated with this negative emotion, even though we may have consciously forgotten it. With enough of this stress, the muscle becomes a literal dam holding back a flood of emotion. 

So what happens when you “open the flood gates”?  As with any bodywork, the goal is to “open” the muscle (to have it relax or stretched).  This requires the muscle to let go of the stored energy it was holding. And I’m not talking about some sort of spiritual type energy, but the literal energy is was using to stay in a contracted state.  More often than not, this simply results in a small feeling of euphoria. A weight has suddenly been lifted. You’ve not only relaxed physically, but you’ve also released a small bit of emotional stress you were holding.  Unfortunately there are times when we’ve packed a lot more emotion away than we realized. That’s when these openings turn into an uncontrollable flood. It can be a shocking thing to behold as a practitioner, and a formidable sensation for the client.  

The first time I had ever witnessed a Severe Emotional Release was during a Thai massage class.  It was beyond anything I could have imagined. The twitching, the sounds, the mucus and vomiting.  A button had been pressed which sent the entire body into purge mode. The release so fast and furious that the body and mind couldn’t properly process it.  Just go. Just release it all. It was nothing short of an exorcism in appearance and in result.  

I was fortunate to be able to witness this around other very talented therapist who were ready.  Having no knowledge of this at the time, I sat back in shock and wonder, watching them go to work. That day I learned many things that have served me well.  How to reassure your client. Encourage them to embrace the onslaught of emotion and comfort them. To sit and ride the wave with them, regardless of how long it takes.  You never know what might trigger a Severe Emotional Response, so it is vastly important that you hold whatever position you were in that set everything in motion. I’ve held positions upwards of fifteen minutes or more.  Once they’re done releasing, we move on to the next stop and perhaps repeat the process there. 

As with all bodywork, there are very few things set in stone.  One of these definitive rules is to stay in contact with the client once they begin to have a Severe Emotional Release.  Obviously you need to check in with them to make sure you are on the same page. Often it is predicated by tears, of which the client can’t explain.  This is where there will be feelings of embarrassment, shame, or confusion. Now is the time for a quick explanation of what is about to happen, and to reassure them that all is OK.  You’re there, completely non-judgmental, and they are safe. Be grounded and be present.  

If you happen to be on the receiving end of a Severe Emotional Release (as I have been), be prepared to lose control.  This is what makes a Severe Emotional Release so terrifying, yet so liberating. Relax into the emotion. If you have to cry, let the waterworks flow.  Maybe you need to let your arms or legs do some sort of strange twitch. Give in to that. You’re going to be absolutely exhausted afterwards, but later that day you’re going to feel brand new.  It’s a feeling can’t be described until you’ve experienced it.  

Unfortunately there is no magic formula for triggering a Severe Emotional Release.  This means that you can’t provide one on-demand, and you also can’t accurately predict when one is about to happen.  It rears up under the perfect storm between practitioner and client in the same way it formed via emotion and tension.  As a client, you must give in to the storm. As a practitioner, you have to be the rock that weathers the storm. The first time through it’s scary and confusing.  Despite this, it’s one of the greatest experiences that can occur from bodywork.

Jacob HopkinsComment