Stress, Muscles and Massage
Author: Sophia Gerontakos.
Some people are very surprised to find out that stress and anxiety manifests physically throughout the body and within the muscle tissues. When we are under stress, be it physical, mental, or just the stress of a very busy daily life, our sympathetic nervous system is switched on. The sympathetic nervous system is sometimes referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which means our body is alert and ready to run from danger.
This can manifest as increased heart rate, contracted or ‘tense’ muscles, and decreased function of those organs not needed in dangerous situations such as the digestive system. This is a normal and necessary reaction to a stressful situation.
However, due to the busy and stressful nature of our modern lifestyles, it is common place to become ‘stuck’ in the sympathetic nervous system, meaning the nervous system is not switching back to the relaxed state when there is no danger. This means that digestive dysfunction, symptoms of anxiety, tight sore muscles and restricted movement are common place problems in our society. Combine this with other sub-optimal lifestyle habits such as poor posture (or just working at a desk for extended periods of time), repetitive movements, low water intake, minimal sleep, and you have a recipe for a sore neck and/or a headache at the very least.
So, there can be a continuous loop between stress and muscle tension, even when you may not realise you are stressed, the demands of life can be very evident in tight, constricted muscles, wry neck, jaw dysfunction and various other musculoskeletal manifestations. In these circumstances massage plays a very beneficial role in both directions on this loop. Massage releases tension from the muscle tissues through manual therapy; and, through the use of combined relaxation techniques it also “switches the body off” in a sense, by switching from the sympathetic (high alert) nervous system to the para-sympathetic (rest and digest) which naturally allows the muscles to relax. And this means massage has benefits physically, releasing constricted tight muscles, and also reduces stress and the manifestations of stress such as improved digestive function and relief of headaches. For this reason, I always (always!) use a combination of relaxation techniques in remedial massage. Understanding the physiology of these body systems means understanding that in order to achieve the best therapeutic outcome it is essential for a person to be able to reach a state of relaxation.
My naturopathic studies have given me a deeper understanding of the body and contributing factors involved in the accumulation of tension and musculoskeletal dysfunction, which shapes the way I treat as a massage therapist. This assists me in providing each individual with a therapeutic treatment. In massage treatments I use a combination of remedial and relaxation techniques to facilitate movement, pain relief, stress management and general health and wellbeing. This could include any remedial techniques such as deep tissue massage, soft tissue release, trigger point therapy, myofascial release, assisted stretching, relaxation techniques, and breath work. However, the treatment is always tailored to suit your individual needs after an initial discussion, and usually it will involve a combination of techniques, as well as a home care plan, to achieve the best therapeutic outcome and optimize that good feeling you get after a massage!