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Give Your Bodywork a Brainwave Boost

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Working with Brainwaves to Advance Client Healing

One of the goals of skilled bodywork is to help clients achieve a relaxed mental and emotional state, but did you know that, in the process, we’re also altering their state of consciousness? The moment the client is touched, brainwaves begin to change — for both client and therapist. (Image 1.) By locking into a physical and mental rhythm, it’s possible to reduce a client’s hyperactive brainwave state.1 As relaxation occurs, the client is more susceptible to suggestion, making it a prime time to use verbal cues to coach the client toward optimal health. This kind of cueing in a suggestible brainwave state can lead clients in pain to favorably reinterpret the nociceptive (danger-signaling) input. I’ve found such brainwave techniques to be a great adjunct to both relaxation and biomechanically based bodywork sessions. Here, we’ll take a closer look at brainwaves and how to integrate this powerful work into our practices.
Image 1. The moment the client is touched, brainwaves begin to change.

Grasping Brainwave Basics

The human brain contains billions of neurons that communicate via electrical wave-like signals, appropriately named brainwaves. German psychiatrist Hans Berger discovered these electrical signals in humans in 1929, using an invention he called electroencephalography (EEG).2 By placing electrodes on a subject’s scalp, Berger was able to record the brain’s electrical activity.(Image 2.) He categorized these impulses by their frequencies and studied how each wave pattern altered the subject’s state of consciousness. Berger labeled the frequencies in hertz (Hz), or the number of times a wave repeats within a second. He then noted how mental performance suffered if any of these frequencies was deficient, excessive, or difficult to access. Below are the four most common brainwave frequencies and a fly-by on their individual characteristics.

  • Beta waves oscillate at high/fast frequencies, between 13 and 38 cycles per second (Hz), and register on EEG when the client is excited, focused, or tense. Beta frequencies may indicate a state of alertness or possibly chronic stress.
  • Alpha waves measure between 8 and 12 Hz and are present when the person is calm and relaxed yet attentive.
  • Theta waves have a frequency of 4 to 8 Hz and occur in sleep and deep relaxation. Indicative of an inner focus and vivid imagery, clients are most open to positive reinforcement at this frequency. 
  • Delta waves oscillate at the slowest frequency, typically under 4 cycles per second. They are generated in deep meditation, dreamless sleep, and occasionally during a bodywork session. Cellular healing and regeneration occur in this brain state. 

Recognizing Brainwave States

Image 2. EEG headsets measure the brain’s electrical activity.
Clients often come to us in a stress-induced beta-wave state. Physical indicators to note during the history intake include restless hands and feet, excessive chattiness, bugged or darting eyes, tensed jaw, and a rigid gait. If I see that my empathetic dialogue during intake is not calming the client down, I will typically cut the intake short, get them on the table face up, and apply slow, rhythmic suboccipital techniques while observing for signs of a relaxation response (Image 3.). At the same time, I try to shadow the client’s breathing and encourage a slower diaphragmatic rhythm. Once I feel the client’s body tension begin to diminish, I know their brainwaves are dropping from beta to the calmer alpha state. At this point, I begin slowly working the lower cervical musculature while offering reassuring relaxation cues, such as, “I’m feeling your neck muscles really starting to ease; just allow your head to get heavy.” By simultaneously stimulating proprioception through tactile stimuli and interoception (awareness of their internal sensation) through cueing, the client is able to embody a healthier, deeper brainwave state. 
Image 3. I perform a slow, rhythmic suboccipital technique while observing for a relaxation response.

Getting to Theta

I find it more difficult to get the client into a deeper, more suggestible theta state when they think I may be looking at them or expecting them to talk. So, I typically have them roll over face down and continue with relaxing neck and upper trapezius work until I sense they have established normal diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes appearing as a big sigh. At this point, I know they’re deep enough in alpha to try to bring them down to a theta brainwave state. The most effective way I’ve found for inducing this deep brainwave state is through slow low back and sacral base unwinding techniques. In Images 4 and 5, I enhance the unwinding by gently resisting as they inhale and taking up the slack on exhalation. 

When treating chronically stressed clients, try and maintain a quiet, attentive state, keep the client warm and comfortably covered, and work slowly with steady pacing and pressure. The goal is to impose a rhythm that encourages the client’s brain to drop into that dream-like state. With the client in theta, be sure to respond appropriately to any verbal and nonverbal feedback by offering relaxation cues, such as, “It’s safe for you to switch off and relax.” Such attuned communication is essential for successful treatment — and it plays a huge role in building a loyal customer base, too.

Image 4. My right elbow gently hooks the contralateral lumbar fascia while my left hand braces. To neurologically unwind the tension, my elbow slowly strips laterally as the client exhales, and I gently resist upon inhalation.
Image 5. A soft right palm gently moves the sacrum inferiorly while my left forearm opposes this movement. To neurologically unwind the tissue, I resist as the client inhales and take up the slack on exhalation.

References

  1. Singh, H., Bauer, M., Chowanski, W., Sui, Y., Atkinson, D., Baurley, S., Fry, M., Evans, J., & Bianchi-Berthouze, N. (2014). The brain’s response to pleasant touch: an EEG investigation of tactile caressing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8: 893.
  2. İnce, R., Adanir, S., & Sevmez, F. (2021). The inventor of electroencephalography (EEG): Hans Berger (1873–1941). Child’s Nervous System, 37(9), 2723–2724.

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