Massage therapy is one of the best treatments for stress. It is important to manage stress, as it can lead to exhaustion, burnout and even to disease in the body. Self-care is very important and a massage is a healing session dedicated to you, to relieve your stress and muscular tension, and it feels really good. People typically feel relaxed and refreshed after a massage and look forward to the next session. Managing your stress through massage and other techniques will mean that you can truly be there for your loved ones, because "you can’t pour from an empty cup", as the saying goes.
A good massage therapist is like a stress relief specialist! First we ensure that you are comfortable on the massage table and warm enough, and have relaxing music playing (or silence if the client prefers). Aromatherapists (like me!) may also diffuse essential oils in the massage room. Essential oils are natural essences from plants that not only smell beautiful, but many have a calming effect on the nervous system. So basically massage therapists aim to create a space that is conducive to relaxation and therefore healing, to encourage your body to heal itself. I'll explain more about how massage therapy treats stress and some other techniques to help with stress management, but first I want to give an overview on stress. Understanding what stress does to your body and increasing awareness of what is happening in your body may lead to a better lifestyle and therefore better health.
What is Stress?
Stress is part of the human condition. Stressful feelings often happen when you feel overwhelmed, and doubt that you have the resources to accomplish it all. The stress response, also known as "fight or flight" is very important to our survival as it is our body's instinct to defend/protect itself. When we experience a threat the stress response directs our body's energies to the systems that will help us to get out of danger - increasing our alertness, strength and speed. For example, our heart rate will increase to pump blood quickly to where it's needed, such as our leg muscles so that we are ready to fight or run away, and to our brain so that our mental alertness will increase. In addition to this, glucose and fats from the liver will be released for fast energy, and we will experience rapid breathing for increased oxygen, and so forth. This is an acute response and very helpful for our survival of life-threatening situations.
What Causes Stress?
There are many stressors; some are physiological - such as pain from injury or disease, excessive intake of a stimulant such as caffeine and environmental exposure to toxins or excessive heat/cold; other stressors are emotional. The limbic system in the brain can trigger the stress response and emotions are connected to the limbic system. This is why situations that cause an emotional response (such as grieving the loss of a loved one, a relationship break-up, loss of a job) can cause such a strong and sustained stress response. There are other emotional stressors that can be ongoing - such as regularly getting stuck in traffic, having too much work to do, not making enough money, relationship issues, and so on.
The trouble is, with our lifestyles today many of us are experiencing stress almost daily. Unfortunately our bodies tend to have the same biochemical reactions to anything that stresses us out, even though the stress response isn't actually helpful in these non life-threatening situations. So many of us are constantly experiencing a more subtle form of stress and we've probably become quite used to it. Being part of a society that encourages "busyness", means that many people pride themselves on being overly busy and may ignore how they are feeling. Unfortunately this attitude can wreak havoc on our health, as we may not consider the long-term consequences of stress.
How Stress Affects Health
The stress response basically makes parts of our bodies go into overdrive, while it deprives other parts of blood and oxygen. The body will try to adapt to sustained stress and it has limited energy to do so. Initially, the body will use the most effective response to a stressor, for example increased heart rate to deliver oxygen to tissues in need. However if the situation is chronic and long-term adaptation occurs, then this can cause wear and tear. In the example given, it could cause heart disease as a result of hypertension.
Stress affects many systems of the body. For example, the stress response takes energy away from the digestive system - for some people this means they could suffer with constipation leading to bloating, stomach pain and even weight gain. For other people it can cause food to move through the gastrointestinal tract quickly resulting in reduced absorption of nutrients leading to nutrient deficiencies. The stress response can also decrease the "good" gut bacteria, therefore reducing your immunity and causing inflammation in the body.
Cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands during the stress response, actually suppresses our immune system. If our immune system is suppressed on a regular basis this puts us at risk for disease. This is why when stressed, people often catch colds and flus.
At some point, after long exposure to a stressor, the body becomes exhausted and can no longer adapt, resulting in wear and tear. This is when the reaction can spread and affect other systems of the body. So non life-threatening stressors can endanger our lives over the long run. In summary, chronic stress has been linked to:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Diabetes (Type II)
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Hormone Imbalances
- Heart Disease & Heart Attack
Stress also adversely affects the musculoskeletal system - making muscles chronically tense, which leads to pain and can even cause headaches and migraines. This is just one of the reasons why massage is so helpful for reducing stress as massage directly treats the muscles, relieving muscular tension. Regular massages can help to prevent tension headaches and reduce the frequency of migraines.
So now you know how stress can harm you and you may be stressing about being stressed but there's no need to panic! There are a lot of things you can do to manage stress and achieve relaxation.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers the stress response and it forms part of the autonomic nervous system. The other part of the autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system which controls the "relaxation response" otherwise known as "rest and digest". Activating the parasympathetic nervous systems turns off those harmful biochemical reactions so that our heart rate returns to normal, our body can digest properly, our immune system can work well again and our body can relax. So essentially we need to encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to take over as often as possible, and massage therapy is a great way to do this.
Massage has many positive effects on the body. In fact, massage directly affects the nervous system as the touch receptors in the skin are stimulated and send nerve impulses to the brain. In research, massage has been shown to:
- Reduce the level of cortisol in the body
- Increase production of endorphins - the feel good hormone, as well as serotonin and dopamine
- Reduce or eliminate pain
- Relieve muscular tension
- Calm the nervous system
- Improve sleep quality
- Improve mood
- Calm the mind
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure
- Increase awareness of tense areas in the body leading to a more relaxed posture and better breathing
Massage also encourages awareness of breath, mindfulness, and the mind-body connection. It can be a meditative practice, and I would encourage you to treat it as such the next time you have a massage, for maximum benefit. Pay attention to your breathing as the massage commences, then focus on how each massage stroke feels and how your body responds. Breathe in and out deeply for particularly tense areas, to help release the tension completely. Gently release thoughts and stay in the present moment. Having mindful massages can be like a mini-retreat and very restorative.
Massage - What to Expect
A good relaxation massage has steady flow and pressure, and a mostly consistent/predictable pace. For a purely relaxing massage treatment, the pressure will not be as deep as a sports massage because comfort is very important to induce a relaxation response in the body.
You need to be able to trust your massage therapist to be able to relax fully and release stress from your body. It is important to go to a qualified massage therapist as we belong to an association and therefore follow a 'Code of Ethics', and we continue our education throughout our career. There are basic things a qualified massage therapist will do for every client to ensure that they are treated appropriately, such as:
- Take the client's health history: there may be adjustments that need to be made for some health conditions so this is a very important step;
- Assess the condition: we do this by asking you about your current condition, observing your posture, how you walk, and perhaps doing some range of motion tests;
- Inform you of the treatment plan and gain your consent; and
- Adjust pressure throughout the session to a level that is comfortable for you. We listen to your feedback.
I have heard many stories (first hand) from people who went to an under-qualified massage therapist and were hurt, which of course will cause a stress response in your body - the opposite of what you want from a massage! Every massage therapist is different so it may take a while for you to find one who is perfect for you, but rest assured there are many of us who are qualified and mindful practitioners.
Massage is an important treatment for stress and I would recommend you include it in your life regularly. Some people find a treatment every two weeks is best, others can go three or four weeks between massages. Generally it is best to include it at least once per month to help reduce stress, muscular tension and to help prevent pain.
Aromatherapy massage is also highly beneficial for stress as not only do essential oils smell amazing and make the massage session feel luxurious, but many essential oils calm the mind and body. Aromatherapy works via the brain's limbic system, which you may recall is connected with emotion. The limbic system is also connected with memory. An aroma can actually trigger a memory and an emotion. The limbic system is also involved with hormones and the circadian rhythm (the "body clock"). This is a huge topic in itself, which I will explore in a future blog. Aromatherapy massage can also be beneficial for hormone imbalances, sleep disturbance/insomnia, digestion issues, anxiety, depression, muscular tension, high blood pressure and many other health issues.
My Massage Philosophy
I mindfully conduct a massage, focusing my full attention on the recipient. Each treatment is personalised to the physical and emotional health needs of the individual. My signature massage is a mix of Swedish and remedial techniques (and sometimes Aromatherapy) - as I find that people's bodies respond very well when a remedial massage is also a flowing and relaxing treatment. I use deep pressure and remedial massage techniques on tense muscles while maintaining a consistent flow and varying Swedish techniques, for maximum enjoyment. I have witnessed great results from working this way. I have a sound working knowledge and work intuitively to provide a truly restorative massage.
If you wish to book a massage with me you can choose from mobile massage or coming to see me. Feel free to contact me to discuss how I can help you, or let me know if you have any questions. Also see below for other potential ways to manage stress.
Other Ways to Manage Stress
It is important to note that for situations that the stress response was originally for (i.e. actual danger), people would get physical - fight or run away - and this would essentially burn off the stress hormones. Whereas for the usual stress we are experiencing today we are often unable to burn this energy off right away - we may be sitting at work all day and those stress hormones remain activated for much longer. Exercise is highly beneficial to help manage stress and therefore it is good to exercise regularly, especially when you are going through a particularly stressful time.
Yoga is great as it encourages the mind-body connection, there is a focus on the breath, it grounds you, uses energy, helps to release some muscular tension, calms the mind, relaxes the body and generally encourages mindfulness. A good yoga practice will include a meditation/relaxation at the end.
Meditation calms your mind and body and helps to bring you to the present moment. Regular practice can lead to higher resilience. There are many more benefits. It doesn't have to take much time or be complicated. A simple practice starting with just 10 minutes a day can make a difference.
Since breathing can become more shallow and rapid during stress and we can consciously control the breath; long, slow and deep breathing can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, immediately. Awareness and even conscious control of the breath is used during yoga, meditation and massage as well.
Getting out in nature, such as going for a bush walk, is very healing and grounding for the body. It can help to release stressful thoughts.
Healthy Diet and Nutrition
In addition to the things listed above, simple things like eating a diet of mainly whole foods (unrefined plant foods, without additives/preservatives) means you won't be putting your body under the extra physiological stress that unhealthy foods can cause. Excess sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods may increase the stress response.
Most of us know the importance of getting a good night's sleep and it is very important to reduce stress. If you aren't sleeping well, consider some of the relaxation techniques discussed in this blog.
I use this a lot myself. For me, it is the second most relaxing thing, after massages! The essential oils work to calm your body, the warm water soothes your muscles and there is a very calming effect that water has on humans.
Rattray, F. & Ludwig, L. (2000). Clinical Massage Therapy - Understanding, Assessing and Treating over 70 conditions, Ontario, Canada: Talus Incorporated
Rosen, E (2014) 4 Ways that Stress Impacts Digestion, retrieved from http://psychologyofeating.com/4-ways-stress-impacts-digestion/
Mohd, R.S (2008) Life Event, Stress and Illness, retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/
Information provided by Essential Restorative Massage is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have a health condition or symptoms of one, please consult with your doctor before using complimentary remedies and therapies.
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