Today’s fast-paced world is a fascinating one, where time seems to fly and stress abounds. We all have stresses and strains in our lives, and we have the choice to deal with them proactively or succumb to them.
We can give in to stress and let it destroy our health and psyche, or we can design and implement an action plan to help us evolve physically, spiritually, psychologically and emotionally in order to cope successfully with it. Massage for stress relief should be considered an essential component of all stress-reduction programs.
Most of us need to learn ways to slow down—but unfortunately, few individuals truly understand and routinely utilize the simple strategies that can help them reduce or eliminate their stress. For some people, the regular practice of aerobic and postural realignment exercises and eating a well-balanced diet helps them reduce stress and benefits their minds and bodies by improving their blood chemistry, digestion and bowel function; increasing circulation; lowering blood pressure; improving their posture and self-image; and decreasing pain.
Some people need to learn to stop procrastinating, while others need to decide upon a meaningful direction for their lives in order to reduce their stress. Many will find stress relief by spending more quality time with their families and friends; others from more time sleeping and practicing deep relaxation.
Regardless of a person’s specific stressors and problems, we must realize that each of us has the individual power to diminish the negative impact of stress by instituting changes in our lifestyles and habits that will help us gain control over our health and happiness. But more often than not, stress takes control of the best of us and evolves into an issue where we must seek the help and guidance of health professionals.
The incidence of stress-related health and psychological problems has reached epidemic proportions in this country. Some people are turning to massage therapy to help them deal with their stress. In one 2015 national report, 23 percent of Americans said they got a massage for stress reduction, and 53 percent said they would consider regular massage to relieve and manage stress.
Massage for Stress and Anxiety Relief
Research has indicated that massage may reduce anxiety and depression; ease pain from headaches and backaches; relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia; decrease stress hormone levels; enhance immune system function; and improve sleep quality and self-image.
A relaxation massage is one of the most joyous and beneficial experiences that life offers. It helps reverse the body’s physical reaction to stress and strain, calms the mind and helps satisfy the basic human need to be touched in a caring, nurturing fashion.
Massage is also one of the finest natural tools against insomnia. A sleep-improvement treatment is more than just a massage, because it combines the use of relaxing, soothing sounds, penetrating moist heat, diaphragmatic breathing, deep relaxation, and focused muscle relaxation in addition to the application of strokes.
Massage techniques are not designed to force the body of the client to change; they are designed to reeducate the client’s body to naturally relax, unwind, rest and assume its proper alignment. During massage, the client and therapist both get into a relaxed state. They perform focused muscle relaxation in which the client and therapist work together to melt areas of hypertonicity. The therapist searches the client’s body for areas of tension, and when one is found the client uses the heat and energy from the therapist’s hand to pinpoint its precise location. The client then breathes through the spot and uses his or her mind to relax it. The therapist does not stay in an area too long; he or she moves on to other areas of the body to prepare it for rest.
Techniques That Work
The following techniques work well to relax the client and help him sleep more soundly.
When performing a relaxation treatment, avoid deep friction or fast, deep compression and tapotement; stick more to effleurage, light compression, rocking, shaking and rolling, breathing and releasing tension, gentle petrissage and light friction. With this type of massage, remember that less is more.
Have the client select the background music that relaxes him and begin the treatment in the prone position with some moist heat to his neck, shoulders and back. The first goals of a stress-reduction treatment are to slow down the client’s rate of respiration and improve his breathing mechanics so that he is breathing more diaphragmatically and efficiently without unnecessary muscular activity. Instruct him to take a series of long, slow, deep, relaxing, complete breaths in through his nose, filling his lungs to capacity, and then to exhale completely through his nose, emptying his lungs totally. Instruct the client to let his thoughts relax as he focuses his entire awareness on his breathing.
After the diaphragmatic breaths, begin the treatment with the aforementioned gentle, rocking, soothing and relaxing strokes to the legs, hips and gluteus maximus. Then move the moist heat to the legs as you move up to the back and shoulders. After 20 to 25 minutes prone, turn the client to the supine position.
In the supine position, focus your treatment on the primary and accessory muscles of respiration, remembering to spend time working on all of the palpable muscles that attach to and have influence on the sternum, clavicle, ribs and scapulae. This should include the diaphragm, intercostals, abdominals, scalene, sternocleidomastoid, subclavius, serratus anterior and pectoralis major and minor. Finish this treatment by relaxing the muscles of the forehead and scalp and then the suboccipital muscles with some gentle friction and focused relaxation.
Return to Homeostasis
Touch the stressed client with compassion, and show him the way to relax, unwind and let go of his stress and tension. These techniques will help reverse the client’s sympathetic nervous system arousal and return him to homeostasis. A successful stress-reduction treatment will help the client feel as if a tremendous weight has been lifted off his shoulders, and allow him to rest, relax, and heal from the stresses and strains of life.
About the Author
Jeffrey Forman, Ph.D., B.C.T.M.B., C.M.T., was a professor and massage program coordinator (now retired) for De Anza College in Cupertino, California. He continues his career as a speaker, author, consultant, expert witness and researcher. He is a board member of the California Massage Therapy Council, on the Scientific Advisory Board for Performance Health Inc. and an appointee to the graduate faculty of Wichita State University’s Department of Human Performance Studies.
This article is based on material written by the author for his book, Managing Physical Stress with Therapeutic Massage, with updates, and is used here by permission of Milady Cengage Learning. For specific directions on how to perform techniques to address the muscles of respiration, refer to pages 73 to 80 of that book.