Massage is commonly thought of as a luxury, a special treat to be indulged occasionally, or while on vacation. And yet, medical research tells us that massage, far from merely being merely a luxurious indulgence, is a simple yet effective tool for reducing stress. Massage is a powerful tool for reducing stress and maintaining vitality and health. Having a relaxation massage is a proven strategy for stress relief.
Stress has many negative impacts on health, not the least of which is pain from muscle tension. Stress is implicated in many conditions , including elevated pain and inflammation, lowered immune function, sleep deprivation, digestive and cardiovascular disease, and damage to body tissues. Massage has been a time honored practice for a healthy lifestyle, and current medical research is affirming traditional knowledge that massage is an effective tool for reducing stress. Massage helps to relax muscles overworked from continual firing of nerve fibers due to over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. It brings needed blood flow to areas starved for nutrients, water and oxygen due to vasodilation of the skeletal-muscle blood vessels. As a result, normal feeling returns to those areas, and we become aware of what it is like to feel more normal. As the muscles return closer to a normal condition, we can move more easily, and are once again able to hold a better posture. All of this has an impact on our ability to affect our stress reactivity. In essence, massage becomes a tool to develop our ability to withstand stress, and to help us develop a lifestyle that leads to greater health and vitality.
The distress caused by stress is not “simply emotional”; when stress becomes chronic, there is real damage occurring to the body. The emotional drain from stress can be significant; post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a classic example of what happens when the body’s fight or flight response becomes overwhelming. While scientific research on the benefits of massage is still in early stages of development, preliminary medical studies show that massage may be beneficial in reducing the damaging physiological effects of elevated stress onthe body. Evidence-based research has used increased levels of cortisol – the “stress hormone” – as an indicator of stress involving over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown that massage is effective in reducing abnormally elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Medical research has found an additional beneficial effect of massage is to lower elevated blood pressure and heart rate, which are also indicators of stress on the body. More study is needed to determine which massage techniques work best for specific afflictions, and what is the optimum duration and interval for the massage treatment plan.
Massage is a Tool For Health and Vitality
Massage will help increase a person’s awareness of areas of the body that are habitually held in tension, enabling the person to identify when they are becoming tense. Yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong are deeply effective practices which help us to consciously develop a more relaxed posture and better breathing. Many physicians today are recommending Yoga or Tai Chi or Qi Gong be practiced several times a week. It is important to realize that regular practice of these time-proven health practices will increase the benefit you receive from a massage treatment plan, providing wonderful cumulative benefits over time. A less understood but extremely important benefit from massage is that it enhances and supports the immune system in several ways. Because elevated stress has the effect of lowering the immune system, massage helps to strengthen our body’s immune response by diminishing the body’s elevated stress response. The wide range of negative effects of sleep deprivation can be forestalled due to the ability of massage to promote a deep and healing sleep, even when circumstances in life conspire to bring about a high level of stress. Finally, by stimulating the lymphatic and circulatory systems, massage has the important function of helping to get rid of accumulated metabolic wastes.
Massage, Posture, and the Importance of Breathing
Breathing only in the upper chest blocks the diaphragm, called apical breathing, forces the muscles of the neck and chest to compensate. Deep relaxed breathing from the diaphragm slows the firing of the sympathetic nervous system fibers (“flight or fight”) and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) through the secretion of acetylcholine. This conserves energy and resources as well as maintains organ function such as heart rate, digestive activity and the secretions from most of the glands. When the abdominal muscles are not allowed to relax, the ribs and muscles of the neck that assist with rib elevation – which is what draws air into the lungs – must compensate. These are the muscles – the scalene and intercostal muscles of the ribs – found in the neck and upper back that often feel tight and painful, even leading to tension headaches and pain through the shoulders.
Diaphragm breathing uses not only your chest, but the abdominal muscles, and is simplest and easiest way to relax. Regular massage will not only relax tense and overworked “fight or flight” muscles, but will help bring awareness back to the body, teaching you to become conscious of posture and how you hold your body. Chi Ne Tsang massage and other traditional oriental massage techniques teach that abdominal massage are core treatment modality for maintaining health and vitality.
Our overall muscle tone and posture have a profound effect on not only our stress response, but on our overall health and vitality. Far from being simply a feel-good temporary stopgap, when combined with a holistic self-care plan, massage is one of the tools which can teach us awareness of what our body is telling us. Are the shoulders hunched up, constricting the breath and causing muscles of neck and chest to compensate for the lack of diaphragm breathing? Are head and neck dropped forward, as is so often the case from doing sedentary work at a computer, further straining the muscles of the neck and back? Are the shoulders hunched and rounded, compressing the upper chest and restricting breathing? Becoming aware of and listening to our body is a key step to vitality and longevity. When we take care of ourselves, we have more vitality, think more clearly, are more effective – and experience better quality of life.
Preparation for Your Stress Management Massage
In order to get the optimum effect from your massage, it is ideal to use moist heat just before the massage – a hot shower, steam room or hot tub. After the massage, exercise lightly, barely enough to break a sweat. This is not a workout, but more like a “cool down”. The idea here is to simply get the blood flowing through the muscle tissue, which will allow the kidneys to filter out the metabolic wastes that the massage has moved out of the tissue. Good blood flow will bring in fresh oxygen to those tension areas. It is the healthy level of oxygenation that is healing to the tissue, and this is a key factor in healing injured muscle tissue. Often this is a gentle feeling of warmth in the area, along with increased suppleness and mobility. After the “cool down”, get in the moist heat again; a hot bath with two cups of Epsom salts will have a wonderful effect, and when used within a few hours of the massage, will increase the benefit from the massage. A half-dozen or so drops of lavender, juniper or eucalyptus essential oil diluted in a tablespoon of vegetable oil can be added to the hot bath for an even more beneficial effect. An herbal tea such as chamomile, catnip, skullcap, passion flower or Valerian may promote relaxation and sleep. Very rarely, a person may be allergic to a plant, even though it is natural, so make sure you have tried it previously so as not to interfere with the massage treatment should you be allergic. Chamomile in particular, while wonderfully and gently relaxing, is without side effects for most people, but is a member if the same family as ragweed and those sensitive to that may find that chamomile will trigger an allergic reaction.
Communication With Your Massage Therapist
One of the great assumptions having to do with massage and pain, is that the more pressure, the better. So often we thing that the more pain, the more gain. Or, being in pain or feeling a high level of stress, we believe that this requires an aggressive massage to overcome the feeling of being imprisoned by the bands of tension. On the contrary; aggressive or stimulating techniques must be used very sparingly when there is a high level of stress, as too much stimulation can potentially aggravate the stress reaction. For this reason, deep tissue not used for treatment of auto immune conditions such as fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis. Remember, pain is stressful, and delivering additional significant pain will only reenforce the tension; powerful fight or flight muscles will simply tighten up in defense. Trigger point therapy is very effective; but only after the muscles have been well warmed either by massage such as Swedish technique, or by application of heat packs. On a pain scale of 0-10, where 0 is no pain, the pressure should not exceed 5-6 range; what can be described as “a good hurt”. Often you can actually feel the muscle relax, or sense a feeling of warmth or gentle stimulation. In this case, the body is utilizing the massage treatment well, and the amount of pressure is effective. Once the muscle groups begin to relax, the massage therapist will be able to gradually work in deeper. It is said to be similar to “peeling an onion”; a progressive restoration of the muscle to a healthy condition.
Following Up – Your Self Care Plan
For stress and tension conditions that have gone on for perhaps months, or perhaps even built up over a period of years, in the case of chronic pain and tension, scheduling a series of three to four massages is the most effective way to begin to correct the problem. There needs to be a reasonable interval between massages, if you have discussed a treatment plan with your therapist for a series of three massages, once a week or every other week would be a good plan, and then evaluate your progress. Once you have experienced significant improvement, you can schedule a regular maintenance massage as a valuable tool for self-care. Many find that a regular maintenance massage scheduled for once or twice a month brings a noticeable improvement in overall fitness and feeling of well-being. Athletes, dancers, and others who have very physical lifestyles will often get a massage on a weekly basis.
Yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong are extremely helpful wellness practices, essentially acting as a whole-body massage from within each time you practice. A simple and effective practice for stress reduction is progressive contraction followed by relaxation, described in Dr. Herbert Benson’s classic book, “The Relaxation Response”, discovered by Dr. Benson and his associates at Harvard Medical School. A simple technique that takes only minutes to learn, it starts at the feet by contracting the muscles of the feet for a second or two, then relaxing those muscles while exhaling. Then, move on to each section of the body -calves, thighs, gluteal, chest, neck, etc.; contracting and then relaxing while exhaling. For help in beginning a self-care routine, a class or workshop is invaluable; once you have developed confidence and experienced the increase in vitality, you can practice at home. For those times when we do fall off practice, as does happen, the best antidote is to go back to a good class or workshop where we can benefit from the the instructor’s knowledge and the energy of the group.