Humans are incredibly resilient and have an ability to adapt to the most stressful circumstances. But as it turns out, that adaptability can actually play a role in what can make us more vulnerable to stress. Early instincts, like the "fight or flight" response, allowed humans to survive acute dangers, like a predator, and to adapt to the most extreme of conditions. As the human brain continued to develop and to problem solve, it enabled us to evolve and adapt in very complicated environments. Today however, as we attempt to manage our lives under the unrelenting circumstances and new pressures of a modern pandemic, it is important to recognize that our innate ability to handle stress, in fact, does have a breaking point, and could threaten the very well-being it is meant to preserve. For our own good, it is crucial that we are aware of our individual levels of stress, and take action in managing it when it becomes necessary.
Enduring extreme levels of stress, especially over the long-term, can have a devastating effect on our physical and mental health. For individuals who struggle with depression and anxiety, long-term stressful conditions can feel insurmountable. “Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress – a negative stress reaction. Distress can disturb the body's internal balance or equilibrium, leading to noticeable physical/behavioral, emotional/social, and intellectual responses.” Research suggests that distress can initiate or worsen certain health conditions and disease, dis-ease. (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.) It is perhaps more important than ever to manage our levels of stress, in order to prevent possible health conditions from developing or worsening in the future. Massage, as part of the holistic approach to mental health, can be an additional therapeutic tool to help counteract the effects of extreme stress.
In 1950, an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, while conducting experiments related to hormone production, identified a stress response that he termed, General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS. He noticed that his subjects displayed similar types of side effects, regardless of the type of threatening stimulus provided. He described the response as having three stages: the Alarm Reaction stage, the Resistance stage, and the Exhaustion stage.
The Alarm Reaction stage is the body's initial response when it encounters what it considers a threatening stimulus. The reaction triggers a release of adrenaline and cortisol, and the body experiences a boost in energy, and an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. These physiological changes are governed by the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system and are known as the body's "fight or flight" response. This is our innate response to an immediate threat.
In the second stage, the Resistance stage, the body's parasympathetic branch of the ANS tries to counteract the physiological changes that occurred during the alarm reaction stage. If the initial stressor comes to an end, the body returns to normal, or homeostasis.
However, what if the initial stress is not resolved, and instead of the body returning to homeostasis, it remains in a chronic stage of stress? Selye described this as the Exhaustion stage. By now the body has depleted its resources but is still continually trying to recover from the initial alarm reaction stage. (Psychologist World, n.d.)
Without a break from the cycle, and a period of recovery, the body begins to develop stress-related health conditions. Many people, perhaps without even realizing it, are caught up in the cycle, and often are in the exhaustion stage for long periods of time. This is when serious symptoms of stress begin to appear.
-high blood pressure
-Elevated blood sugar and a decreased sensitization to insulin, which are precursors to developing diabetes
-A weakened immune system
-Increased risk of obesity
-Muscle aches and pain
(Mayo Clinic, n.d.)
This is how massage therapy can have a wide range of health benefits. Receiving regular massage therapy can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, lower levels of cortisol and insulin, improve circulation, and increase levels of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. It can increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and greatly reducing the effects of stress on the body. It can strengthen the immune system and help relieve muscle tension and body pain. Furthermore, the physiological effects of massage therapy can help depression and anxiety feel more manageable.
At this unusual time, when our everyday lives are further complicated by conditions beyond our control, recognizing our level of stress and choosing to add massage to your holistic therapy, can be so much more than spoiling yourself, it can benefit your overall health and well-being for years to come.
Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.) Stress Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Management & Prevention (clevelandclinic.org)
Psychologist World. (n.d.) General Adaptation Syndrome General Adaptation Syndrome - Psychologist World
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.) Stress Management Chronic stress puts your health at risk - Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Management & Prevention Mayo Clinic