Stress and Massage

Stress and Massage

Everyone has it.  No one is immune.  Stress is a necessary component of life; and, although stress can be unpleasant, it is an important and useful part of life.  It stimulates learning and personal growth, and is a natural part of any important accomplishment.  The most effective and the healthiest people do not avoid stress, but respond successfully to it.  You don’t have to let it overpower you.  Learn to manage your response to stress.  By gaining more control over your body’s automatic reactions to anxiety-producing situations, you can reduce the negative effects of stress in your life. Therapeutic massage is a remarkable tool for helping you cope with stress.  In the short term, a deeply relaxing massage can give you a welcome break and help you feel better both physically and mentally.  Over time, you can use massage to help you develop healthy and productive responses to the stressful challenges in your daily life. 

The Stress Response:  “Fight or Flight” 

Under stress, your body reacts just as your ancestors’ did when confronted by a physical threat:  you mobilize to fight or flee.  Your nervous system becomes highly activated and hormonal changes, such as the release of adrenaline, prepare your body to respond to an emergency.  Muscles tense for action, heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and digestion and other maintenance functions are put on hold. Unfortunately, fighting or running is rarely a useful response to modern difficulties.  Much of our stress comes from an accelerated pace of living.  Major life changes occur with increasing frequency such as moving to a new city, relationship upheavals, or changes in employment.  Today’s stresses are often ambiguous and ongoing, such as money worries, environmental concerns, interpersonal conflicts, or job expectations.  Without a sense of resolution – knowing the danger has passed – your body and mind receive no clear signal it’s safe to stop, relax and recuperate. 

The Stress Cycle   

With little chance to rest and recover, you may find that your stress leads to a self-perpetuating cycle in which you become less and less able to unwind.  Stress-related muscle tension can develop into painful conditions such as chronic headaches or shoulder and back pain, which are themselves stressful.  Worry and physical tension can interfere with sleep, leaving you exhausted with little energy or mental focus to deal decisively with your problems.  You may even find that your normal coping strategies add to your stress as you struggle to find time for exercise or to organize recreational outings. As pressure mounts, the background level of stress hormones in your bloodstream can become elevated to the point that very little is needed to trigger the stress response.  You may find yourself in a constant state of agitation, reacting not only to actual events, but to anticipated events and memories. With energy levels so depleted, you may come to rely on a stress-induced jolt of adrenaline just to get through the day. 

Renewing Your Energy Reserves   

The antidote to stress is the relaxation response.  During the relaxation response, your endocrine and nervous systems activate changes to slow your heart rate, improve your circulation and digestion, and relax your muscles—in direct counteraction to the stress response.  There are many activities that can trigger the relaxation response such as exercise, deep breathing, meditation or listening to soothing music.  One of the best methods to combat stress is therapeutic massage.  When you are overtaxed and running on empty, massage can help you recharge and restore the energy and creativity you need to successfully meet your challenges in a number of ways: 

Release of muscle tension: During massage your tight muscles tend to relax, relieving painful muscle tension that can sap your energy.  Though the effects of a single session may be temporary, a well spaced series can actually reverse chronic muscle contraction.  Massage also stimulates the release of endorphins, your body’s natural pain killers, giving you a “pain break” and creating a sense of well-being. 

Increased circulation: Massage increases circulation, clearing out accumulated stress hormones and waste products that can make you feel tired and sore, and bathing your cells with nutrients vital for tissue repair.  A short-term increase in oxygen to your brain can reduce mental fatigue and improve your ability to concentrate and attend to your problems.  As your tissues are cleansed and flooded with nutrients, you may even experience relief from emotional symptoms such as anxiety or depression, along with a renewed sense of optimism which can last for days. 

Improved sleep: The quality of restful sleep usually improves in the days following a massage.  This gives your body a chance to further repair and restore your energy levels. 

Psychological support: Finally, massage gives you a measure of control, just knowing there is something you can do to take care of yourself when you need it, massage helps you feel less at the mercy of external events. A program of regular massage will put you in touch with your body, teaching you to monitor its signals and needs so you’ll know when you should take time out from the things that worry you.  In this way, you can avoid the damaging effects of chronic stress and gain some control over your sense of well-being.

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Copyright © Janet Lawlor, BCTMB