Rachel Richards

licensed massage therapist

east village, nyc

News: January 2012

The Surprising Epidemic of Stress

Are you stressed? Of course you are! We all experience stress to some degree. But even though you're probably very familiar with stress, you may not know just how dangerous it can be.

To really understand stress, you first have to understand its opposite: relaxation. When we are relaxed, our bodies are in equilibrium. We perceive no threats, and this allows our parasympathetic nervous system to come to the forefront. This is the part of the nervous system that tells us to rest and digest. Conversely, when we have stress, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, and it triggers a stress response - blood pressure rises, senses are heightened, blood sugar increases, the heart speeds up, digestion slows down, muscles tense, brainwaves speed up, and blood is redistributed to our arms and legs. This is all in preparation of the fight or flight response, which is necessary for survival.

When our ancestors perceived a threat, perhaps a wild animal about to attack, their stress responses kicked in and they would either stay and fight, or flee. Once they had escaped the danger, their bodies returned to a state of equilibrium. The stress response was turned off and the parasympathetic nervous system was able to do its important work. Unfortunately, though we live in a very different environment today, we are stuck with the same stress responses as our ancestors. Our nervous systems don't know the difference between stressors: whether we're running away from a wild animal or running late for work, the body reacts the same way.

Stress is really just change. Something in our environment has to change to elicit a stress response. Change was not common back in the days of our ancestors. But today we live in a time of perpetual change, culturally and technologically. And those changes are happening faster and faster. So on top of normal human life changes like the birth of a child, death of a loved one, marriage, moving away, and changing careers, we have additional every-day stressors like running late, arguing with your boss, or meeting a deadline. But the body can't distinguish between these stressors, so the stress response is always the same.

The result of so much constant change is that our bodies essentially maintain chronic, low-level stress, even when lying around watching T.V., or sleeping! Stress has become the new norm.

If we do nothing to counteract the stress that accumulates in our bodies on a daily basis, we can end up suffering from pain or illness. Some medical researchers believe that stress plays a key role in up to 80% of all illnesses (and even that is a conservative estimate!) Stress causes strain on our bodies, making them work harder than they should, and creating wear and tear over time. Every organ, muscle, system, and gland in the body is affected by stress. Stress weakens our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis or cancer. Stress is a significant component in allergies, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, TMJ, and much more. If we have a genetic condition like a weak heart or digestive problems, stress will worsen the condition. Stress even increases cell-death, leading to early on-set aging.

Stress also increases inflammation in the body. Our muscles tighten as a response to stress, decreasing their own blood supply and causing a build-up of metabolites, or waste products. This causes nerves that run through the muscles to become irritated, and that's when we feel pain.

So if change, and therefore stress, is unavoidable in today's society, what can we do? The best we can do is manage our stress. It is crucial to take the time to unwind on a regular basis. I hear many people say they relax by walking the dog, having a couple of drinks, or playing tennis. But these types of activities are recreation, not true relaxation. That's not to say recreation isn't important - you should do things that you enjoy. But when I say relaxation, I mean shifting into a state of deep rest, with your body completely relaxed and your mind alert.

This, of course, brings us to massage. Massage is an extremely effective way of achieving deep relaxation. Other relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, meditation, or guided imagery, and it's benficial to practice these on a regular basis. In order to avoid the detrimental effects of stress building and building, we need to be able to really unwind and let go, leaving us more ready and able to manage our stress on a daily basis. Think of a sink with a drain. If we turn on the faucet and let it run for a little while, the water will drain as the sink fills, leaving the water level stable. But if we leave the water running at full blast for too long, then too much demand is placed on the drain and the sink will eventually overflow. This is similar to how stress works in our bodies. If we are to achieve balance, we must take the time to bring our bodies into a state of deep rest, turning on that parasympathetic nervous system as an outlet to reduce stress's harmful effects.

The next time you're uncertain of whether or not to get massage therapy to alleviate your stress, think about what that stress is doing to your body. Consider how beneficial it will be to your health and how good it will feel to turn off that stress response and truly relax!

Visit www.EliBay.com for great information on practicing effective relaxation.

Source: Nov. 2011 World Massage Conference

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