When I feel like rewarding myself, I have a number of go-to indulgences: organic dark chocolate and an espresso, a pedicure with nail art, a superfluous movie night (no substance, please), a leisurely afternoon in the hammock with a book. But one thing you don’t see on my “Indulgences List” is massage. That’s because, in my opinion, massage is not a treat or an indulgence, but actually an essential component of any preventative health routine.
Generally, there are three reasons that folks get massage. The first is to treat themselves – i.e. to indulge. The second is to address areas of pain or injury. Massage has been shown to contribute to muscular healing and shorten the recovery phase of healing. Finally, people also get massage for stress reduction. Massage reduces aggression, lowers stress, and improves performance. Receiving regular massage or bodywork has been shown to decrease anxiety and improve depression.
This last reason – stress -- is the one I want to focus on. Why? Because stress is a big deal! We have yet to settle on a definition of stress, but still, we all recognize what happens in our bodies when we experience it. Have you heard of the sympathetic response, aka “fight or flight?” On a biochemical level, “fight or flight” means that the body releases the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol as the warning shot to our cells to get on guard. These chemicals increase our metabolism, raise our heart rate, tense our muscles, slow the flow of blood going to our organs and limbs, and inhibit our digestive and immune systems. In other words, the fight or flight response prepares us to put up our dukes or get the h-e-double-hockey-sticks outta here!
Now, this system served our ancestors very well back when they were living on the savannah with lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!, but as our species evolved into the home-dwelling, car-driving, modern-convenience society we now find ourselves living in, it is far less necessary. For example, we don’t really need to go through the same physiological experience our ancestors did while escaping a herd of elephants when we’re sitting in our cars in traffic or faced with a deadline at work. Yet that’s exactly what happens when we experience stress and it takes a toll on our bodies. I mean, think about it, what was the life expectancy of our ancestors?! We can bounce back from a few stressful experiences here and there, but we need to take a preventative stance to combat the onslaught of stressors we experience every day.
It’s really no wonder, then, that 60-85% of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related symptoms. Stress contributes to allergies, gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD or acid reflux), weight gain, heart disease, headaches and migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and a host of other unpleasant illnesses that are now common in adults and are starting to manifest in our young people. The scientist and writer René Dubos really nails it: “what happens in the mind of man is always reflected in the diseases of his body.”
The flip side of the sympathetic response (“fight or flight”) is the parasympathetic response, aka “rest and digest.” This is the response that allows us to digest our food, make babies, recover from injury, and sleep. We are meant to live in this relaxed, productive system not the other - not in stress.
So what’s a gal to do to deal with stress?
First things first, find ways to reduce the outside sources of stress in your life. That may mean making a career change, getting better friends, or embracing the mantra “let it go.”
Second, eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables, which are full of antioxidants that combat the chemical assault of stress (free radicals).
Third, incorporate stress-reducing activities into your everyday life. Even twenty minutes of daily meditation, yoga, tai chi or journaling will make a marked impact. I think of that daily 20 minutes as self-care and of the monthly massage as maintenance.
Finally, get bodywork! Scheduling time for you and only you is very powerful medicine. Massage therapists are among a select few health care practitioners who dedicate 60 – 90 minutes to nurture and care for their clients. When was the last time you got that same attention from your doctor? I recommend that my clients receive a 60-minute massage every 3-4 weeks.
Reducing the amount of stress in your life is not an indulgence – it’s preventative care. Limiting the impact stress has on your life, through bodywork and other stress-reducing activities, can help you avoid chronic illness and age with grace.
Photo by Emma Freeman Photography.
Jesse Haas is Co-Founder of Chakra Khan, where she is a Massage Therapist and Health Coach. Her approach to working with clients integrates whole body health and conscious eating. To learn more about her practice or to schedule a free consultation, visit www.jessehaas.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her last article for SGT was: Bones, Calcium, Controversy.