The Relaxation Response
Oh yeah, we all know that feeling. You are on the massage table and everything starts to fade in and out. Your tummy starts making noises that might normally embarrass, but you pay them no mind. You start drooling a little. And while you aren’t exactly asleep, you aren’t exactly awake either. This sense of bliss stays with you long after the massage is over, and makes you want to get another one a.s.a.p. Why, exactly, is massage so darn relaxing?
To answer this question we have to look at our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is a division of our peripheral nervous system that acts mostly subconsciously to regulate many functions including digestion and heart rate. The ANS is divided into two more systems, the parasympathetic and sympathetic. The sympathetic is in charge of our Fight-or-Flight Response. Our less modern human ancestors had to be ready to stick their ground or run away from a multitude of threats. Thus, we evolved the Fight-or-Flight Response. This boosts our level of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, increases heart rate and blood pressure, pushes more blood flow to major muscles groups, and slows digestion. All of this just to give the body a needed burst of strength and energy to accomplish whatever major feat lies ahead.
In the past, we entered into this state for shorter periods of time. Today, we are surrounded by stresses that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and many of us live in a state of chronic stress. Not to say that living a modern life is more difficult than, say, killing a large attacking beast or defending your tribe from a malevolent neighbor tribe. But, these days, we are more consistently under stress. This makes it hard to let go and allow the Relaxation Response, aka the Rest-and-Digest Response (controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system), to take hold. And, you guessed it, when we are in Rest-and-Digest mode our cortisol and adrenaline levels drop back down, and our digestive functions, blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. Massage communicates with the parasympathetic nervous system and allows for you to enter into this state of relaxed blissfulness.
Stress is a killer! It’s not a Lion or Tiger or Bear, oh my! But it isn’t much better. Living with chronic stress and the resultant effects is no way to live. Anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, weight gain, sleep issues, problems with memory and focus; these are just some of the outcomes of chronic stress. So…get a massage! And get massage often. The more massage you receive the better your body responds to it and the longer you hold onto the effects. When you receive regular massage, you are investing in not only your current state of bliss, but also your future health and happiness. I bet that’s something even our cave dwelling ancestors could get behind!