We know that stress is a health hazard, and also that stress has become endemic in modern society. Many are turning to massage therapy for relief from the symptoms of extended stress. Not only has massage been clinically proven to have many health benefits, massage has become well-known as a safe and effective treatment for stress and anxiety.
As a licensed massage therapist with over twenty years of practice, I have found that at least half of my clients seek relief from general stress. I have some observations to offer, as well as some suggestions for the kind of useful formation that you will want to bring to your massage therapist, so that he or she may give you the very best massage in a way that will most effectively address your body.
When you go to see your massage therapist, you will want to have a clear idea of what your body needs. There are many kinds of massage; you will want the massage that best fits your needs. In order to discover what massage is best for you at the time, you will want to clearly communicate with your massage therapist so that he or she may recommend the kind of massage that will best bring relief.
Let’s first get on the same page as to what stress, or more accurately, dis-stress, is. Some stress is normal; in fact it is essential. We know, for instance, that in order to maintain bone health, our bodies need some stress – what is often described as weight-bearing exercise. Astronauts spending time in space will lose bone mass because they are in a no-gravity environment; that is, their bones and muscles do not have to work against gravity, nor do they experience the slight shock/ impact that we do with every step we take.
However, the word “stress” in modern usage has taken on an exclusively negative connotation. Stress in the negative sense is very well-earned, because extended elevated stress makes us sick. Short-term stress is an essential adaptation to danger, such as slamming on the brakes when the car in front of us suddenly slows or stops; the body is designed to recover quickly once the danger is over. Not so with chronic elevated stress, which begins to manifest in physical symptoms as well as feelings of fatigue, anxiety, fear and tension.
When we talk with our massage therapist, there are a number of things to communicate so the therapist can best address your symptoms.
- Let your massage therapist know your general health; thyroid conditions and asthma are two conditions that may be intensified by stress.
- Do you have any painful conditions, either acute or chronic?
- Do you feel you are under stress, either new, temporary stress or chronic ongoing stress?
- What are you doing to reduce the effects of stress, including strategies such as meditation, exercise, taking medication for stress or reducing stimulant intake?
- Have you seen a physician about your symptoms?
- Do you experience anxiety attacks with shallow breathing and increased heart rate?
- Do you use any medications, such as overuse of an inhaler with asthma, which may provoke a stress response or insomnia?
What are common physical symptoms of stress? Often stress manifests as muscle tension patterns, especially in the muscles of the neck and back. Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ syndrome) is a common result of tension from jaw clenching as a result of stress. Shallow breathing is common, due to tension of the respiratory muscles of the neck. Shortness of breath may result; for asthmatics, it may bring on an attack. The whole gastrointestinal tract is affected, which may lead to upset stomach, nausea, constipation, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome.
The classic Swedish massage is the basic treatment for stress relief. It is a soothing and relaxing massage, lasting typically 50 minutes. The massage therapist will use effleurage, working in flowing movements along the direction of the muscle fibers. Slow, rhythmic effleurage has a sedative effect, reducing the sympathetic nerve firing, reducing pain and muscle tension. Other Swedish massage techniques include stroking, kneading, muscle stripping.
Because the muscular tension patterns become painful, often leading to headaches and loss of range of motion of the head and shoulders, clients will often ask for deep tissue massage for stress. However, it is very important to understand that aggressive or stimulating massage techniques are contraindicated for treating stress and anxiety.
However, treatment of painful trigger points will relieve referred pain and decrease muscle tension. Trigger points are very irritable spots that are tender to pressure and often result in pain and a shortening of the muscle. The upper trapezius, levator scapula, supraspinatus, splenius capitis and cervicis and suboccipital muscles are commonly affected trigger points. At these points, the pressure of the massage may be uncomfortable, but should never be painful. At the very most, for stress management the massage pressure should never exceed a “good hurt” level.
Deep tissue massage is really designed to address specific issues, and in general is not a relaxing massage. The massage therapist will also often need intermittent feedback from the client, such that complete “zoning out” may not be possible. There is also another concern that figures into how much pressure should be used with the upper back and neck area that is so often tense and painful from stress. This area is comprised in part of muscles of the rotator cuff, as well as other, small muscles that make up the amazing structure of the human torso and shoulder area. Many of the individual muscles are not large, and the area also has nerve plexus and the brachial nerve running across the upper back. All of these tissues can be damaged by massage that is too aggressive.
When the muscles are also tense and ischemic (lacking normal blood flow), it is especially easy to bruise and damage the tissue. A hard aggressive massage is very counterproductive. One of the chief virtues of massage is its ability to restore blood flow and remove toxins from the tissue. Whether the massage is for relaxation, or for treatment of other muscle tension issues, if the massage does not first “warm up” the tissue and encourage the restoration of normal blood flow, the body is not able to heal the painful muscles. There needs to be accommodation time for the muscles to relax; so faster and harder is not the way to go.
I always suggest adding the world’s best treatment sometime within the 6-8 hour “window” after receiving the massage. It is a simple hot soak with two cups of Epsom salts. The Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate, an electrolyte that is very necessary for healthy muscles. The moist heat and mineral salts of the bath also help to draw toxins out of the body. It is an old remedy that still works today. If you like, add about ten to fifteen drops of pure therapeutic lavender or marjoram essential oils to the soak.
I hope this article helps you to best communicate with your massage therapist for the best stress-busting massage possible. I recommend having a massage at least once a month; more often when experiencing stress or pain, or when the season changes bringing the accompanying low pressure systems.
Please share your experience with massage as a remedy for stress. What kind of massage is your favorite? How do you communicate with your massage therapist? Please tell us about your experiences in the Comments section below.
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