Updated: Jul 15, 2020
So the Springbok (bokkie) is grazing grass, without a concern, out in the veld. Next thing a lioness rushes from a nearby thicket of bushes. In a split second the bokkies sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear; speeding up the heart rate, flooding the muscles with blood and accelerating breathing allowing the bokkie to spring into action. After evading the lioness and getting to safety, bokkies parasympathetic system starts to restore the 'Carry on grazing' hormones replacing the 'keep you safe' ones and everything returns to normal.
First, a quick review. The function of the nervous system is to send messages to and from the brain and different parts of the body. The autonomic nervous system regulates the body’s response to danger, and it has two divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system activates a 'keep you safe' response known as fight-or-flight, and helps you respond to a threat. Lets take you and I driving to work, because we no longer chase bokkies in the veld, we chase cash in places of work. Next minute a bad driver cuts in front of us narrowly missing our car. The 'keep you safe' hormones jump into action and suddenly we are in a fight against the 'lion' or a race to get away. You get the picture right?
The parasympathetic nervous system, the 'carry on grazing' bit, brings you back down after the threat has passed, when you are at the office now making a cup of coffee. Your breathing returns to normal, and energy goes back to maintenance activities. So you just carry on your day as normal right? As if nothing has happened right? No, we don't because we aren't bokkies eating grass. Humans tend to 'think thinky' too much. We are designed to remember and contemplate strategies to avoid more risks, much more so than a bokkie.
Here is the catch, when you get to the office you tell the first person you see about how you narrowly avoided dying in a car accident that morning. Bokkie on the other hand has already forgotten about the lion and is focused on grazing grass. In the telling of the story, cortisol is released, your heart rate rises, blood fills your muscle tissues and breathing accelerates just as in the actual incident itself. Your body unconsciously re-experiences the entire event while you are telling the story. You find yourself in a bad mood for the rest of the day and start thinking about how you are going to deal with any bad drivers on the way home.
The unconscious mind doesn't know the difference between the actual event and the memory and so you don't just remember it, you relive it each time you think about it. In addition we now start to see regular ordinary events as potentially life threatening. Your boss reprimanding you, climbing back into the car to drive home etc. This is a dangerous position to put yourself in as the sympathic system is constantly flooding your body with the 'keep you safe' hormones which can negatively affect your health.
If this sounds familiar, remember, it’s not your fault — it’s the body’s survival mechanism, just thrown into overdrive.
Massage helps activate your parasympathetic system which tells your unconscious mind that you are safe and being nurtured which releases happy hormones which can positively affect your health. I will deal with the conscious minds "thinky thinky" bits in a further post but for now lets just look at the physical hormonal affects.
Stress Hormones - 'keep you safe'
Lets have a look at how a massage can help lower the chemicals (adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol) that cause the stress response.
Adrenaline and Norepinephrine
When you get threatened, adrenaline and norepinephrine are hormones produced by the adrenal gland, activate the flight-or-fight response. Both hormones increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and the flow of blood to the muscles. This is great when you need to avoid an accident or run like the wind to avoid a lion, but if your brain is constantly interpreting driving in traffic or someone cutting you off with a shopping trolley, or being late for work as life threatening situations, you’ll probably just end up feeling anxious or far worse.
Massage activates the parasympathetic state, thus reducing levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine. However, it may take a little time. In the initial response to touch, the sympathetic nervous system is activated — so a short sports massage can help athletes get ready for an event. After about 15 minutes, the parasympathetic response kicks in and for some even longer depending on your stress levels. Plan the length of your massage on at least one hour to truly relax, and advise your therapist that relaxation is your primary objective.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland when you experience a stressful event. It takes a little longer than adrenaline and norepinephrine to kick in, but when it does it prioritizes the body’s resources to cope with the threat, raising blood sugar and decreasing inflammation.
Complications can arise if you remain in a state of stress, and cortisol is released over a longer amount of time. This can cause suppression of the immune system, increased blood pressure, and weight gain.
Suffering from a never ending flu or cold may be due to increased levels of cortisol, and the subsequent suppression of the immune system. A small study in 2010 found that after a Swedish massage, volunteers had lower levels of cortisol, and a higher white blood cell count. You shouldn’t get a massage while you have cold symptoms (you’ll probably feel worse) but regular massage gives your immune system a boost which might help kick COVID out of the park.
The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitters - 'carry on grazing'
Also known as our happy hormones.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion. Synthesized in the brain and the intestines, the Doctors believe that low serotonin levels contribute to depression and anxiety.
Dopamine is associated with the reward centers of the brain. It’s the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy when you fall in love, positive when you complete a task, and is the chemical activated by many drugs, leading to addiction. Low dopamine levels are associated with a lack of motivation, low energy, and the inability to focus.
You can thank serotonin and dopamine for that light 'floating on air' feeling after a massage. Several studies have indicated that massage can increase both serotonin and dopamine levels, sometimes up to 30%. Serotonin can help you maintain a balanced mood, and the increase in dopamine can help you be productive and focused. So all you HR managers I am just saying..just saying.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters produced to help relieve pain and improve mood — your own natural narcotic. Really. The chemical structure and effect of endorphins produced by the brain are similar to the opiate class of drugs derived from the poppy plant such as morphine. Usually, endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, but there are other triggers, such as exercise (think “runner’s high). Endorphins are also released in response to laughter, dark chocolate, and you guessed it, massage.
There are only a couple of small studies demonstrating an increase of endorphins after massage. The most well known found an increase of about 16% in the blood tested from volunteers post connective tissue massage. It seems likely that more endorphins are released in the deep tissue modality (as opposed to lighter Swedish massage). In a deep tissue massage, you often experience that feeling of productive pain — the pressure hurts, but the pain is mixed with relief. Endorphins may be at least partially to thank.
Still, if you’re receiving a deep tissue massage, listen to your body. If the pain of the therapist’s pressure is rated on a scale from 1–10, aim for no more than a 7 — more than that and your muscles will probably start guarding against the pressure.
Oxytocin is called the “cuddle hormone,” helping to create trust and fortify relationships. It is released during sex to help bond you to your partner, and during childbirth. Probably the simplest way to increase your oxytocin is to give someone a hug. Leo Buscaglia was a well know author and known as "the Doctor of love". He wrote about the need for regular hugs as does Dr. Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, author of “The Oxytocin Factor” who talks about the many benefits of touch therapy.
The next time you are feeling overwhelmed book a massage. The effect on the body is measurable and can concretely help to reverse the stress response and boost your mood.