We experience all of life through the physical reality of our bodies. Our pleasures and pains, the up's and down's of daily life affect the body profoundly, often in ways we're not aware of. Stress is more than a household word these days - it's something everyone feels to one degree or another. Let's take a look at the mechanics of stress and the role therapeutic massage can play in stress management.
Stress is an unconscious and automatic reaction to anything we believe may be threatening to us. In the stress response, the body is primed for fight or flight by messages carried by the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. Whether we are confronted by a mugger in the street or find ourselves in a long line at the bank or a short lunch hour, the effects are the same, impacting all levels - physical, mental and emotional.
We are at full readiness as our body tenses and our breathing gets shallower and more rapid. There is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline production, with a corresponding decrease in blood flow to the extremities, digestive function, and immune system activity.
Ideally, this defensive reaction will subside once the situation has resolved, allowing our body to return to its normal state of affairs. We often help this process with some rest, the right exercise or massage therapy.
However, a person who is frequently under stressful influences will tend to remain locked into a pattern of stress response, unable to relax or let go. This type of pattern is damaging to the body; as it escalates, it ultimately leads to discomfort or pain, and is a contributing factor in most disease processes.
The longer one is in pain, the more likely one will try to block it out. It is at this point that alcohol and drugs often enter the picture. Unfortunately, as one uses substances which deaden the nervous system to reduce the perception of the pain, awareness of oneself and others are reduced in the process.
Like driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, or like the gentleman pictured at the top of the page, we experience stress whenever we initiate an action and hold it back at the same time. Our ever-obedient muscles try to obey both messages and work against each other.
In the same way, we have our own unique muscular responses to the expression of emotions such as anger, sadness, fear and exhilaration. We use our muscles to block, control and restrain these strong feeling and our reaction to them. Even though we may be unaware of the amount of tension we store within, it puts extra wear and tear on both mind and body over time.
Maintaining these patterns of chronic tension is like leaving the lights on all night - it takes energy; but once it's a habit, we no longer recognize it as such. What we do notice are the aches, pains, fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, PMS, or a host of other stress-related symptoms. These symptoms are important signals to be heeded, rather than ignored or bypassed. Accumulated stress and tension always diminish the amount of energy and vitality we have to enjoy life, be creative and productive and strive for better things.
The antidote to stress is known as the total relaxation response, which is triggered by the parasympathetic branch of the central nervous system. This action sends messages to the body to relax, slow down and take a deep breath: saying in effect, it's time for rest and healing.
There are a number of ways to promote this response, such as exercise, meditation, listening to calming music, guided visualization, biofeedback, and of course, therapeutic massage.
Massage takes place in a comfortable and safe environment, which is generally away from the source of most stress creators . As massage stimulates the relaxation response, muscular tension is released, circulation is increased and sensory receptors are activated. Areas that have been "cut off" by accumulated stress can begin to feel health once again. Massage teaches us to tune in to our body signals, breathing pattern, and soothes us at the same time.
stress reduction, relaxation, and self-awareness
In Western cultures body contact is seldom a part of peoples everyday behavior, and the United States is perhaps the most non body-oriented culture of all. Our ever-developing technology allows us to be hooked up to our computers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we have created a world of automated conveniences, where little movement is required. These features of our modern lifestyle impair our ability to connect with our bodies, and a growing number of people are responding to this disconnection by going to massage therapists for relaxation and stress reduction.
Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, cofounder of the Omega Institute and author of Timeshifting, offers the most elegant definition of stress as not being in the present moment, for in the present moment, there is no stress. The therapeutic techniques used by massage professionals can help us achieve a greater level of bodily and functional awareness, which requires that we be in the present moment.
Many body tensions are indications of repressed or unexpressed holding patterns. They may be the result of lifelong patterns of tension, or they may be caused by current or past physical trauma. Simply put, the nature of our reactions to our own unique environmental stressors is actually captured in our bodies. Massage therapists act as facilitators or catalysts of change to the body structure. The therapist works with you to address habitual holding patterns. Some examples of common holding patterns are:
Most of us have a predominant holding pattern that may be one of these listed
above, and many of us have combinations of holding patterns. It is the
massage therapists contact with the body or movement of the body
that allows him or her entry to your soma-body, which helps you to become
whole and integrated once more. The massage therapists goal is
to help you gain insight into your pattern of holding, or lack of flow,
and to make you aware of the increased energy it takes to hold that
pattern. This way you can slowly learn to reduce or eliminate the holding
pattern (which is often a defense mechanism) if in fact you are ready
to give it up.
the sensation of a spa experienced in the comfort zone of your environment