Massage Therapy and Stress Management

Massage Therapy and Stress Management

Nicole Hunter R.M.T

Stress, anxiety, and depression – These are common words nowadays, which is not surprising, given the fast-paced and overbooked lives that we are expected to live. With e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, and social media, we are now expected to be available to respond to questions and requests at all times. Our brains must constantly be switched “on.” In a society that places increasing demands on individuals, stresses the value of competition and praises those who pull all-nighters to get more done, is it any wonder that we are also seeing a rise in anxiety and depressive disorders?


Why do we feel stress?
Originally, stress was a survival instinct. Imagine being back in cave-man days where you are often faced with life or death situations. You need to act quickly in order to survive. So at the first sight of a wild animal charging towards you, or upon hearing a battle-cry from an opposing tribe, you feel your body start to react. Your heart races, your palms and feet get sweaty, your breath picks up, and you’re ready to do what you need to do. Your choices are “Fight or Flight” – pretty self-explanatory, right? You either fight off your attacker or run away.
Once the immediate threat is over, you have a chance to calm down, let your body decompress, and settle back into “Rest and Digest” mode, which is equally as adaptive. This is the state in which you nourish your body, develop and maintain bonds with those close to you, and procreate in order to carry on your bloodline. These two states of being (fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest) were a beautiful yin and yang that balanced each other out and kept our ancient ancestors alive and healthy.


Is stress still helpful now?
Fast forward to 2016 – Is stress still adaptive, now that we are no longer facing wild predators on a daily basis?
Some stress is fine, helpful even. Eustress is the good kind of stress – it can be the motivation we need in order to complete a project, prepare for an interview, or win a race. And when we work hard to get these things done, we usually feel pretty good afterwards. But too much stress, ie) Distress, can hinder our performance and become overwhelming. There is a happy medium between boredom and burnout, where we have just enough stress to function optimally and feel productive.


What Happens in my Body When I’m Stressed?
Adrenaline is the hormone that causes our heart to race, our breath to quicken, and our blood pressure to rise. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, sends sugar to areas in the body that need it most when under attack, but it also shuts down any functions that are unnecessary or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. For example, it suppresses the immune system, digestion, and the reproductive system. It also affects mood, sleep, and energy levels. Sound familiar?


What happens when stress sits in the body for too long?
There are three stages of stress: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. When stress sits in our bodies, we move through these phases until we reach a stage of burnout. This is when stress can turn into anxiety and/or depressive disorders, which often go hand in hand.
We, as humans, are designed to feel stress in short spurts (remember our cave-man example). The problem now is that our bodies still react to our current stressors (battling against time to fulfill our multitude of obligations in this fast-paced, competitive and overscheduled society) the same way we reacted to cave-man stressors (being chased by a tiger). But unlike the tiger, our obligations don’t go away after a short period of time. Or if they do, they are usually replaced by new obligations, new stressors. And because our bodies see these continuous hassles and obligations as threats, our bodies react as if we’re constantly under assault. Remember those three stages of stress? This is why people who suffer from anxiety and/or depression constantly suffer from exhaustion.


Can Massage Therapy Help Reduce my Anxiety?
Absolutely. Massage Therapy has shown to be effective at reducing anxiety and depression in both children and adults through a multitude of RCTs (randomized control trials). In fact, the effect of Massage Therapy on anxiety and depression is so strong that it parallels results shown in psychotherapy studies! How does this work, you ask? To be honest, we still don’t know for sure, but scientists have come up with a few ideas that need more testing to confirm.

1. Many researchers believe that Massage Therapy affects the autonomic nervous system, which is what regulates your fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest states. In other words, creating a better balance here would allow your body to finally feel like that tiger has finally stopped chasing you. And in turn, you may see improvements in your sleep, digestion, cardiovascular health, immune system, energy levels, and *gasp* sex life.
2. Some researchers say that by stimulating certain pressure receptors located under the skin, Massage Therapy increases production of serotonin and dopamine, which are the “feel good” hormones – which in turn decreases depression.
3. I think we can all agree that Massage Therapy can reduce muscle tension. – And considering that muscle tension is one of the main symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, this is one of the strongest contenders.

Coming in for Massage Therapy is a fantastic start to decreasing your level of anxiety and/or depression, but if you’re really serious about maximizing your wellness level, other things that you may want to look at are exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, sleep and a healthy diet, along with other complementary health care.