I’ve recently come across several articles on stress and anxiety in various massage publications. It’s no wonder that people are writing so much about it when, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 40 million adult Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. In one article, the top 4 sources of stress were identified as 1) Finances, 2) Work, 3) Family responsibilities, and 4) Health concerns. The ironic part about #4 is that countless research studies have found that stress is a significant factor in many health conditions including heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Stress in itself is not always bad, in fact sometimes stress can save your life. We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight response” which refers to the body’s physiological response to a perceived threat. When Mr. Caveman perceives the nearby saber-toothed tiger as a deadly threat, the stress response kicks in to prepare the body to act suddenly. In the blink of an eye, a rush of hormones and neurotransmitters are released which cause an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, a decrease in digestive activity and an increase in the liver’s release of glucose (used for quick energy) into the blood, all of which will help Mr. Caveman fight off the tiger or run. When he gets to safety and the threat is gone, the release of hormones and neurotransmitters slows down and the body’s functions return to normal.
While most of us aren’t having daily encounters with saber-toothed tigers, many of us deal with the previously mentioned stressors that we perceive as threats to our lives. If I don’t have steady work, I can’t pay my bills, I’ll lose my home, I won’t be able to get health insurance, and so on. And while the tiger may seem like a more serious threat to my life than overdue bills, when I escape from the tiger the threat is gone. My modern day stressors don’t go away so quickly, and neither does my stress response. My heart rate and blood pressure remain in a prolonged elevated state, my digestive functions are irregular, as are my blood glucose levels and my immune function becomes compromised. And this is how stress contributes to diseases.
How can massage help? Obviously getting regular massages is not going to make your stressors go away. But research has shown that massage has many positive impacts on the physiological response to those stressors. Massage (even a 10-15 minute chair massage) has been proven to decrease heart rate as well as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, it slows breathing and is shown to lower the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Getting periodic massages can help break the chronic stress response cycle and help your body return to a more normal physiological state. So schedule yourself a massage, and leave your tigers at the door.