As people’s lives become more and more hectic, stress becomes an increasing presence and increasing risk to our health. Numerous surveys and studies confirm that occupational pressures and fears are far and away the leading source of stress for American adults and that these have steadily increased over the past few decades. According to one study, 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their co-workers need such help.
How Does Stress Affect Us?
Stress symptoms may be affecting your health without you even realizing it. When the body is stressed, muscles tense up reflexively, the body’s way of guarding against injury or pain, part of the fight or flight response. During sudden stress, muscles tense, then relax as soon as the stress has passed. During chronic stress, the muscles are in a nearly constant state of guardedness. Over time, with chronic stress, the body can fail to return to pre-stress conditions and cause long term strain and health problems.
When tense for long periods of time, this can lead to other stress reactions or stress related disorders. For example, tension and migraine headaches can be associated with chronic muscle tension in the head, neck and shoulders. Some research theorizes that chronic muscle tension and the related buildup of lactic acid may be a contributing factor to fibromyalgia. Stress and anxiety can affect sleep patterns and increase the risk of health problems associated with not enough sleep, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
It’s not necessarily what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other body systems that becomes the problem. Stress triggers the nervous system’s fight or flight response. The body shifts all of its resources towards fending off the threat or fleeing it. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase heart rate, respiratory rate, decrease blood flow to the arms and legs, change digestion, increase blood sugar levels, and increase the heart rate, raising blood pressure. When our bodies don’t get the chance to recover from stress, we continue to wear down our systems with the continuous production and effects of these hormones.
Physically, chronic stress and anxiety have a tendency to cause us to hunch our shoulders or roll them forward in a protective posture, leading to continually tight/shortened muscles of the neck and shoulders. Frowning, clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth causes more muscles in your face, neck and jaw to become tight and painful. Muscles that do the opposite action of these muscles, antagonists, then tend to get overly stretched/lengthened and develop “knots”/adhesions, leading to more neck, back and shoulder pain.
Massage can help!
Massage can counter the effects of stress in a number of ways. The primary type of massage I provide is called Swedish Massage. This is a relaxing style of massage with long, flowing strokes that helps to relieve pain and muscle tension. It also increases the circulation of blood and lymph and aids in the removal of metabolic wastes from your body, including the byproducts of the nervous system’s stress response.
Physically, massage helps by lengthening and relaxing those tense, irritable muscles. Relieving tension in the muscles of the head, neck, shoulders and face can reduce the occurrence of headaches and migraines. Relaxing and lengthening those shortened muscles in turn relieves the overstretching and knotting of those antagonist muscles, reducing back, neck and shoulder pain. Decreased buildup of lactic acid may also contribute to a decrease in chronic pain and related disorders.
It increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine, which can help reduce anxiety and depression and improve overall mood. Decreased anxiety and stress, along with less pain, improves your sleep. In addition, one hour of massage has a similar effect on your body as three hours of restorative sleep, and stopping the the cycle of chronic stress stops the flood of stress hormones, lowering blood sugar and blood pressure, and improving circulation and digestion.
Other things help!
Another service that makes a great addition or alternative to massage is Reiki. Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction, relaxation, and healing based on the idea that a life force energy flows through us. If this energy is low or blocked, then we are more likely to feel stressed or ill. When the energy flow is increased and the blockages removed, we feel more positive and healthy.
A Reiki treatment helps to identify and remove the blockages and improve our energy flow. A treatment is given fully clothed, most often while laying on a massage table. It can also be given while seated, or sent from a distance. Even if you do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of life force energy, the act of receiving a Reiki treatment can be very comforting and soothing – if for no other reason than you’re actually taking time to be still and receive positive intent and attention.
To enhance the benefits of a massage or reiki session, aromatherapy may also be included. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from the roots, leaves, seeds, or blossoms of plants. These oils have been used for centuries for therapeutic purposes, as well as for cosmetic, spiritual, and hygienic uses.
Researchers are not entirely certain how aromatherapy works, but some believe that when the smell receptors in the nose communicate with the amygdala and hippocampus, the molecules of the essential oils stimulate these parts of the brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, scientists believe that lavender stimulates activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way of some sedative medications.
Some essential oils that can help with stress and anxiety:
Lavender: Antidepressant, calming, rejuvenating, good for stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, increased immunity
Rosemary: Good for headaches, mental fatigue, memory, antispasmodic. Rosemary is great for having in a diffuser while studying, to help you retain what you’re learning!
Clary Sage: Antidepressant, anti-anxiety, uplifting.
Sandalwood: Antidepressant, good for nervous tension, stress, anxiety, depression. Sandalwood trees have been over harvested and the oil is expensive, but you don’t need to use much more than a drop at a time to experience it.
Ylang-Ylang: Antidepressant, sedative, euphoric, calming, hypotensive (reduce blood pressure), (also believed to be an aphrodisiac, if you’re interested)
You can keep a bottle of your favorite oil or blend of oils on hand to just take a sniff whenever you need a pick me up. You can put a few drops into an aromatherapy diffuser, or wear it in a specially designed necklace. They can be added to carrier oils such as grapeseed, almond, or olive oil or natural lotions to apply to the skin. When I use essential oils during a massage, I will either use them in a diffuser to lightly scent the room, or put them into your massage lotion, depending on the desired effect.
So, this is all to say, ideally we should do what we can to avoid stress in the first place, but chances are everyone here has experienced stress more than they should. I am here to help, whether you want a good old fashioned relaxation massage, a more therapeutic massage to work out particular problem areas, or you would like to try adding reiki or essential oils to your stress therapy.