STRESS – it should be a four letter word. Massage is often mentioned as a means to reduce stress, but what exactly does stress do to the body and how does massage combat it? Every one of us has had periods of stress, whether short or long-term, and during those periods, the body undergoes specific changes. Massage’s ability to treat the system as a whole and to reduce the physiological and mental effects of stress makes it a promising means to address stress.
How stress affects the body
You’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response. Stress engages the fight or flight response on the body. This is the body’s way of preparing to protect itself or run away from the stressor – a physiological response passed down through evolution. In preparing for these two possibilities, the body increases heart rate, breathing, production of adrenaline, and production of glucose to increase energy. In addition, blood is diverted from non-essential functions (like the digestion system) to other systems in the body like the respiratory and circulatory system.
While both short-term and chronic stress can occur, chronic stress has a more negative effect on the body. Chronic stress may last for days, weeks or months, and it keeps the body from achieving a healthy equilibrium. Some studies have shown that 90 percent of all disease and illness are stress-related. Some of the following have been directly linked to stress: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, ulcers, allergies, asthma, and migraine headaches (see http://www.cdc.gov/nasd/docs/d001201-d001300/d001245/d001245.html). Given these observations, stress is a serious health issue for our culture.
How massage counteracts the effects of stress
Most of us have specific places in our bodies that react to long periods of stress. Certain muscles tighten and cause dense, knotted muscles to become sore or achy from constant contraction. Massage’s work on the muscles loosens those tense and sore areas relieving tension and counteracting the way the body’s muscular system reacts to stress. In addition, the slow, calming music played during sessions often slows breathing and aims to induce an alpha state. By slowing the mind and the breath, the music assists in pulling the mind into a more relaxed state – keeping the mind from a continued focus on the stress. As massage increases circulation to the whole body, it brings the circulatory response to stress back into balance and moves toxin from the overused muscles out of the body. Another way it counteracts stress is the nature of the interaction in a session. It’s quiet, only two people in a room without much verbal interaction, and allows clients to focus on relaxa tion rather than their stressors. It’s time that is centered on the clients, their needs, and time where outside distractions are reduced to a minimum.
Frequency of massage for stress is something that differs for each individual. In general, I advise clients come in every two to four weeks if they are using massage for it’s stress-relief benefits. Most clients notice the returning physical reaction to stress as the effects of the previous massage wears off (This can be noticing an increase in muscle tension in certain places, the frequency of headaches, etc.). Work with your massage therapist to find the optimal frequency of massage. Aim to schedule your next massage about the time you start to notice your body’s reaction to stress returning.
For some good articles on stress, see: