You wake up late for work. Jumping out of bed you throw yourself together and run out the door. The morning commute includes traffic and construction. By the time you get to your office you’re frazzled and stressed. Your stomach growls, reminding you of a skipped breakfast. It will have to wait; you’ve got to catch up on the whatever you are working on.
Modern life is full of stress and nonstop hustle. Schedules are jam packed, deadlines need to be met, mouths need to be fed. It can feel like an endless cycle where we long for the weekends and suddenly it’s Monday again. But what does all this stress actually do to our bodies?
Enter the Nervous System
Designed to keep us alive and ticking the nervous system is the control room of our body. Muscle movement, digestion, organ function, emotion, physical feelings, and more are all controlled here. If your body eats, breathes, and sleeps, it’s because of the nervous system.
This complex human wiring likes to operate under two settings which are integral to our survival and well being. Too much of one can increase your risk of disease, heat attack, and fatigue. Let’s take
a look at both.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is like the Hercules of the body. Designed to keep us alive in life threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for some pretty amazing feats of strength and survival. Grandma kills a bobcat with her bare hands? Sympathetic nervous system. Kid lifts a car off of his dad? Sympathetic nervous system. So how does it work?
When the brain recognizes danger, our fight or flight instinct is triggered through this nervous system. Blood rushes from the torso and organs to the muscles. The adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart beats faster and oxygen rushes from our lungs and through our blood. The body prepares to fight for it’s life, or run for it, because the brain views the potential threat as a life or death situation.
Yet we aren’t cavemen anymore, and we don’t usually need this kind of response very often (thankfully) in our modern lives. So why is it that society if often living in a parasympathetic state? Studies have indicated that prolonged states of fight or flight, better known as chronic stress, can lead to illness and earlier death. Adrenal fatigue, high blood pressure, headaches, and digestive issues can be linked back to it.
It turns out that the brain responds to any stressful situation by using the parasympathetic system. This means that long stressful commute? Your body is reacting the same way it would if a tiger was hunting it. Even our thoughts can trigger this response. Ever dread a meeting with someone and feel your heart beat faster, or your palms get sweaty? Our brains don’t know the difference between a real threat or an imagined one. All it knows is that we sense danger, so we start acting like it. Add in a stressful life, and your brain thinks there’s death around every corner, preparing to flee or fight at any moment. That’s not a very relaxing state to be in at all, and in takes it’s toll on the body.
Enter the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system gets a bad rap. This is because a lot of it’s work happens when we are in a relaxed state, unaware that the most important work of all is going on. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite of the sympathetic one. Responsible for cellular repair, digestion and absorption, slowing our heart rate, and conserving energy, it’s what maintains our healthy state. Things that trigger this response can be cuddling, eating, sleeping, curling up with a good book, meditating, getting a massage, spending time in nature, and enjoying some of our favorite hobbies. However, these things often get bumped down to least important on our list of things to do or even left off entirely. Since society is so focused with productivity and cramming as many things into a day that we can achieve, we value these other things less. We put off things like getting more sleep, sitting down to eat a meal, and sacrifice the hobbies we enjoy. Yet relaxation may be the most important thing that we need in our world right now. More than ever people are stressed out and burnt out. I can’t emphasize enough how important rest and relaxation is. Our bodies need it in order to function at their best capacity.
How Massage Therapy Can Help
Massage Therapy can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to start firing. Ever begin to get sleepy during massage? Or have tummy gurgles when you aren’t hungry? Those are some signs that your body is kicking back into rest and digest.
Many people get massage therapy for aid in anxiety disorders, depression, stress relief, and even insomnia. Yet relaxation massage seems to get a bad rap. The truth is that both relaxation massage and therapeutic massage help to trigger us back into the parasympathetic state. Massage can be both therapeutic and relaxing, and both can have light or deep pressure; it all depends on the individual needs of the client and the treatment plan.