Fight, Flight or Freeze? Achieving Equilibrium with Rest and Massage

By Phoebe Norris | August 22, 2013 | 0 Comments

Just for a moment, consider how many times something stressful happened to you this week: heavy traffic on your way to work, a screaming child, even just someone unexpectedly slamming a door. Now how many times did something relaxing happen? A walk in the park, a long bath, some time to meditate.

Our bodies are constantly making adjustments to maintain homeostasis – the state of balance in our body systems. This includes the nervous system, one of the body’s messenger structures. Our ‘fight or flight’ response is a response of the sympathetic nervous system: when we are subjected to stress stimuli this system decreases digestive activity, increases the heart rate, causes spikes in blood sugar, increases muscle tension and stimulates the secretion of adrenal hormones. Along with stress hormones like cortisol, the combined physical effects of elevated stress levels can compromise the balance our bodies strive to maintain.As such it is important to give our bodies a helping hand in times of chronic stress. The parasympathetic nervous system produces a ‘rest and digest’ response that balances the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ response. This response increases digestive activity, lowers the heart rate, decreases muscle tension and works to stabilise blood sugar, bringing the body back into a state of balance after a stressful stimulus. But when the body is receiving multiple and often continual stress signals, we may need to tell the body when it is time to rest and recuperate.

To help your body kick start the parasympathetic nervous system, try beginning simply with some slow, deep breathing. Have a list of ‘relax stimuli’; meditation, a gentle walk in the park, a hot cup of non-caffeinated tea – anything that gives your body the signal that it’s time to rest.

Massage is a wonderful way to help your body balance out the impacts of stress. Multiple studies show good evidence that massage can help with managing stress and anxiety, as well as increasing relaxation, improving sleep and reducing depressive symptoms. Massage can decrease your heart rate and blood pressure and, according to some studies, it can even increase secretion of oxytocin (known as the ‘trust’ hormone) and inhibit cortisol secretion.

While a Relaxation Massage is an obvious choice – the flowing strokes, kneading and gentle movement of the joints all maximise the relaxation response – there are also other beneficial forms of massage for managing stress. A Therapeutic Massage combines the benefits of activating the parasympathetic nervous system with deeper work in areas where stress is held as tension, such as the shoulders and neck. A Manual Lymphatic Drainage Massage works similarly on the nervous system as a Relaxation Massage, but uses powder instead of oil to perform a light rhythmic massage that has the added benefits of increased movement of lymph fluid, which in turn can help improve immunity and aid toxin removal. A Remedial Massage instead targets the specific musculoskeletal issues that prolonged stress can cause, like headaches from chronic neck tension or a tight jaw from clenched teeth.

While physical and mental wellbeing is much more than a simple equation of stress versus relaxation, focusing on balancing the kinds of stimuli your body receives will help your body maintain homeostasis and as such, help keep your body functioning at it optimum.

Phoebe Norris is one of the remedial massage therapists at the clinic who will be able to help you.

Contact us to make an appointment today.


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