The by product of our busy lifestyles is increased stress. When the body experiences a perceived threat there is a cascade of hormones that are designed for us to be able to protect ourselves. This is the famous sympathetic nervous system also known as the “fight or flight” response that is responsible for the human race surviving threats like saber tooth tigers and wooly mammoths in the early years. When there is a perceived threat the body releases these hormones to increase blood flow to the peripheral muscles, decrease blood flow to the central body, and increase heart and breathing rates. All of these actions prepare the body and mind to either do battle or beat feet, as the saying goes. The trouble is that the portion of the mind that is responsible for this cascade of hormones doesn’t distinguish between saber tooth tigers and the prospect of running short on money or being told that we have a terminal illness. And while a threat to physical safety may last only a short time, the threat of paying the rent or poor health can be carried much longer. As a result this continuous overwhelming cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters remain in our bodies and continue to have their effects. The chief hormone involved in this bodily function is cortisol, and when high levels are in the body for long time periods our bodies take a beating. An American Psychological Association survey in 2013 showed that 77% of the respondents reported regularly feeling physical symptoms related to stress. Another issue is that this way of life has become the norm for such a large percentage of the population that they don’t even recognize the effects anymore. People live in such a heightened state of sympathetic awareness that their bodies are being severely effected and they don’t even know.
Now for the good news. Not only does massage and bodywork decrease cortisol levels, it also increases serotonin and dopamine levels (two neurotransmitters related to the parasympathetic system, the “rest and digest” side of this interplay). An abstract for the study can be seen here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447. Honestly these findings are somewhat controversial. The truth is that while it is well documented that massage and bodywork reduces stress, the scientific community isn’t exactly sure how it happens. In any case the goal is to take the patient out of the heightened sympathetic state and let them experience a heightened parasympathetic state. I’ve had numerous clients walk out of my office saying they feel almost drunk (I do insist that they sit a rest a few minutes before leaving when this is the case). The sensation is so foreign to these clients that they even feel like it’s an altered state of consciousness. And more good news, the increased hormones and heightened parasympathetic state are related to positive side effects. The body in this state is able to rest, blood is directed to the core organs, oxygen exchange is improved, and digestion is improved. Hence the slang term “rest and digest” for the parasympathetic system.