Take a deep breath in for four counts.
Exhale for eight counts.
Okay, now focus.
Turn your attention to your body and scan around to feel where you are holding your tension. Is your jaw set? Have your shoulders crept up towards your ears? Are you clenching your fists? Does your stomach feel tight from holding it in your gut? A simple check-in from time to time can reveal where you literally “hold” your stress and start to give you clues on how stress may manifest into muscle tension and pain patterns in your body.
Now do that breathing exercise again and consciously relax your tension while you exhale.
Stress management – ubiquitous, à propos, and somewhat amorphous in its sheer grandness. Mention it anywhere and heads start bobbing. Stories start flowing. People share how stressed they are like a badge of honor. One of the popular maladies of our time and place, it often seems that we are proud of how much stress we take on. Proclaiming the stress we endure shows our commitment, tenacity, and hard luck.
I hope we can get to a place where we can leave this mentality behind and instead proudly discuss how we work through, banish, and overcome stress. Because life is dynamic and constantly throws us stressors, it is important to be conscious of our stress and have a good set of tools to work through it. Otherwise we begin to accumulate physical and psychological symptoms– muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular problems, digestive upset, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, burn out, and more.
Stress comes in more than one package. Short term stress around a specific instance can give you energy and focus, such as during athletic competition or running from zombies. However, many of us deal with more persistent negative stressors in our daily routines. As we negotiate these situations over time the symptoms that make us feel bad start to compound. Left unchecked, chronic long-term stress can have serious health implications such as heart disease. Stress management can be attained in many healthy (and some less-healthy) ways. Here we will discuss our favorite– massage!
To say that massage relieves stress seems like a no-brainer. Massage Therapists work every day with people who suffer from pain and ill health related to stress. Indeed, relaxation has consistently remained a primary reason that people seek out massage. People report time and again that massage lowers their stress levels and relieves its symptoms. A growing body of evidence supports the theory that massage may improve:
- perceived stress
- anxiety (situational and clinical)
- muscle pain and tension
- cardiovascular health
These are all symptoms of stress.
Despite this burgeoning body of evidence, the studies that have so far sought to explain how or why massage accomplishes this have provided frustratingly little data. One small study seemed to indicate that massage reduced cortisol, but a subsequent study found otherwise. Another recent study focused on endocannabinoids, to no end. A small study from 2012 found a link between massage and increased oxytocin in the brain, but it requires further investigation. Many small studies do seem to link massage with calming the “fight or flight” response through the nervous system, but this is often a secondary measure as part of a broader study, and generally also requires more data.
Keeping all this in mind, I have to admit to often replying “magic” when asked how massage works. While the scientists suss out the how and why details, us massage providers will keep on helping our clients relax, unwind, de-tensify, and chill.
Pretty much anyone can use massage for stress management. We help people manage busy lives, intense jobs, stressful family dynamics, caretaking of loved ones, grief, anxiety, even happy stressors such as new babies and transitionings. Our clients who receive relaxation massage report a variety of benefits like becoming more at ease, feeling less tense, having less muscle pain, quieting mental chatter, sleeping better, and becoming more attuned with themselves so they can better self-manage. People use massage to interrupt periods of high stress, kick off an endeavor to better manage things, or to manage routinely high levels of stress.
If you are new to massage and would like to try massage for stress relief here are some pointers.
Look for these styles of massage which generally equate to relaxation.
Therapeutic Massage– A blend of techniques deigned to induce relaxation and stress relief. During a therapeutic massage focused on stress relief, the therapist might use a lot of Swedish Massage techniques.
Thai Massage – A special type of massage incorporating stretching, energy work, and massage. The client wears loose comfortable clothing and rests on a special mat on the floor.
Hot Stone Massage – The therapist uses smooth heated stones during the massage which many people find relaxing.
Reflexology – While not relaxation massage per se, during a reflexology session only the hands and feet are massaged. It is usually deeply relaxing and a great way to drift off into peace.
Please don’t hesitate to ask if the therapist you are considering does relaxation massage- not everyone does.
If you are just getting your feet wet, a 30 or 60 minute session with a massage therapist will give you a good idea of whether you will like that particular person. Generally speaking, a 60 minute session is the most standard. However, some people find that they need a longer session because they either take a long time to relax or they have a lot of muscle tissue (or they just like it). Some standards of massage operations include: dim lighting, “relaxing” music, aromatherapy, a heat component.
Once you decide to book, think about the following things and share them with your therapist during the initial intake process.
- How do you experience stress?
- Do you hold tension in your body? Where?
- What other symptoms do you experience?
- What is the primary goal you would like to work towards through massage?
- What areas would you prefer the therapist to skip?
- Are you sensitive to scents, music, heat? (You may often bring your own lotion, oil, or music if you have a strong preference.)
While each situation is a little different, here are some of the things we do as massage therapists for people seeking massage for stress management or relaxation.
- Have a discussion prior to the session addressing the above and any other concerns so that we can develop a customized session plan.
- Focus on slow, intentional touch with the intent of relaxing a person and their muscles. Most people find some combination of gliding, kneading, gentle movement, rhythmic pressure, and simple pressing to be comforting and relaxing.
- Adjust the pressure between light, medium, and firm depending on the client’s comfort.
- Avoid intense pressure or aggressively working at knots. Muscle tension and pain can be eased with a non-invasive approach. Too much pressure or going too fast can actually make a person’s guard go up.
- Maintain quiet other than the occasional check-in. (Unless you, the client, keep a conversation going.)
- Add atmospheric touches designed to enhance relaxation such as aromatherapy, heat, and quiet music.
You can participate in enhancing your own stress management by employing some of the techniques below.
- Add some occasional deep breathing, especially at the beginning, or when the therapist works on particularly tense areas. Some people like to envision breathing peace or relaxation in and breathing tension or pain out.
- Speak up if anything needs to be adjusted- the temperature, cushions, pressure of the massage, etc…
- Focus your attention on your body and how the massage feels in your tissue.
- Or let your mind drift…
- Relax your limbs and let them be heavy.
- Don’t schedule anything directly after your session that you will have to hurry off to.
Now you’ve taken the time to learn a little about massage for stress management. We hope you take a little more time for yourself and try a relaxation massage to take it to the next level!
General Info about Stress from the American Psychiatric Association-