Massage is commonly associated with the manipulation of muscles, ligaments and tendons for the purposes of relaxation or repair. But did you know that massage therapies can also affect your nervous system?
Using massage to rebalance the nervous system can affect you in many ways, from encouraging your body to enter its rest and recovery mode to causing mental and physical arousal. Yes, we did just write that. It's often the elephant in the room whenever people mention 'massage' ... so let's deal with it in a manner which is mature and scientific!
Whenever you are touched, receptor cells on your body are stimulated into action. The style of touch and depth of pressure determine how those cells react and the type of information they transmit along your nervous system, to your brain and other parts of the body.
To function correctly, nerves should be free from compression. Sometimes tense muscles end up pushing against nerves, causing them to become compressed and painful. Certain types of massage therapy can help reduce that pressure, helping ease nerve compression and reducing pain whilst also improving the nerve's functionality.
To work effectively, the various elements of your nervous system need to work together in harmony and be in balance. Depending on your lifestyle choices and external pressures, it is possible for certain aspects of the system to become unbalanced over time. This can be especially true if you constantly live a hectic lifestyle in a busy city environment.
One of the ways in which massage can help, is by restoring the balance between the complementary parts of your nervous system. This is especially important within the autonomic nervous system, which monitors and regulates situations of high anxiety as well as rest and recovery.
The human nervous system is effectively made up of two distinct parts: the central nervous system (which runs through the brain and spine) and the peripheral nervous system (a network of nerves and sensory cells flowing throughout the body).
The peripheral nervous system is further divided into voluntary (or somatic) and involuntary (or autonomic) elements, as shown in the diagram below:
The voluntary nervous system links sensory and motor receptors in the muscles and skin to the central nervous system and is responsible for voluntary movements. Lifting an arm is a simple example of your voluntary nervous system in action.
The involuntary nervous system manages a range of bodily functions without any conscious input from the individual. Examples include regulating blood pressure and heart rate. The autonomic part of the body’s nervous system is further split into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
This part of our bodies helps us to deal with imminent threats, whether physical or psychological. Automatic chemical reactions take place within our bodies enabling us to react as best as we can to unexpected or emergency situations.
When you experience a moment of acute stress, hormones are released into your blood stream awakening your sympathetic nervous system and sending the body into an overdrive mode: breathing and heart rates increase as does blood pressure.This can happen as a result of physical interactions such as suddenly being barked at by a ferocious dog in the street or psychological pressures such as an impending deadline for a key project at work.
You very quickly reach a state of high alert and poised to react in the manner that your body feels is most appropriate. This physiological state is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response state.
The sympathetic nervous system is important for survival but also a high impact, energy draining aspect of our physiological make up. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system centres on soothing sensations that help us feel more relaxed and aid recovery.
Just like the biceps and triceps muscles, these two nervous systems work as a pair. When one is actively engaged, the other is less active.
Living in a busy, demanding, ‘always-on’ urban environment such as London can cause your nervous system to be in a constant state of high awareness. It’s as if living in the city is a constant mini-emergency. Whilst this may mean you are always ready for action, it can cause havoc for the balance of your physiological state and cause chronic stress levels to rise. This happens because your sympathetic nervous system is often engaged and active, meaning your parasympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for peace and tranquillity of the mind - remains underactive more often than it should be.
Proactively stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system through massage can help restore the right balance and strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system. With the parasympathetic nervous system functioning better, we find it easier to feel relaxed and calm, which in turn helps reduce stress and anxiety levels.
Allocating time on a regular basis to receive an hour or two of pure massage therapy, doing breathing exercises to reduce the risk of burnout and practising mindfulness can all help stimulate your parasympathetic nerves and restore a better balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
When you receive a high quality relaxation massage treatment your parasympathetic nervous system is awakened. This can cause the release of various feel-good and anti-stress hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Your body and mind shift towards a more relaxed state. This is all good stuff! And for males, the hormonal changes can indeed also cause involuntary penile erection. As a professionally trained practitioner, your massage therapist will have been taught the science behind such situations and will place any such reactions in the same camp as involuntarily passing gas, falling asleep or drooling during your treatment.