Anxiety is actually the most common mental health issue experienced by Australians. One in three women and one in five men will experience it in their lifetime. ‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Haven’t we all experienced anxiety?’ Well, Yes and No. As a mental disorder we are not just talking about a normal response to a stressful situation such as a job interview or public speaking event. We are talking about strong feelings of worry that may arise without any known reason and may linger in the mind for much longer than a passing event. Some people may even have an underlying sense of anxiety that is their constant guest in life with peaks and troughs but no true relief. Imagine that! – Never, ever having a truly peaceful moment in life…
What Can Massage do for Anxiety?
Massage can do so much for someone experiencing anxiety. The first overall thing that it can do is to activate the relaxation response (para-sympathetic nervous system) You see, for someone who is always on edge, the sympathetic nervous system is over activated. Now don’t get me wrong, it is actually totally necessary to be able to become ‘stressed’ or anxious. This is a survival mechanism that has served us very well throughout our evolution however it is only supposed to be activated when we are genuinely in a situation that demands more of us physically or mentally. In this state, the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones to stimulate and enliven us so that we can ‘Run from the Tiger’ or ‘Defend our child from a wolf with a spear’. As you can see though, my examples are no longer relevant in most of our modern lives (In Australia at least) but the trick is that our mind doesn’t know the difference between an actual threat to our survival and one that is either indirect (I.e. the angry boss over our shoulder) or purely illusory (I.e. imaging a terrible future event that isn’t even likely to happen) So, coming back to massage, if our system is too stimulated then massage can activate our own natural antidote to such a situation – the relaxation response that will neutralise the hormones and chemicals that work us up into a state of anxiety. Awesome!
The Physical Dimension of Anxiety
But wait, there is more to it than just that. Most of us tend to ‘hold’ our stress and tension in certain parts of our body. The neck and shoulders are by far the most common place for us to do that but they are by no means the only place. Tension can be held anywhere and we are all unique but other very common places it is held are: The face, jaw, chest, abdomen, hands and feet. Now, lets back track to why it’s so common for us to hold tension in the neck and shoulders. Take a look at the following image of a cat in a defensive position:
The main things you can notice here are the curved spine (spinal flexion known posturally as kyphosis) and the extension of the posterior neck which is required for the cat to still be able to see otherwise it would be looking at the ground. What does this cat have to to do with me? I hear you ask. Well, we are a product of our evolution in the natural world and we all still have a bit of this cat in us. It’s not just cats that have this reaction when they are startled, frightened or defending themselves. Most mammals have similar ways of ‘preparing for battle’ so to speak. Once again, this is not a ‘problem’ as such if it is fairly infrequent and the energy generated by the physiological response (release of adrenalin etc.) actually has an outlet such as running away, fighting or just shaking it off after the crisis is over (You can see ducks do this by flapping their wings vigorously after leaving a conflict situation) It is a problem though, if the energy is not release or if the defence reaction is being activated over and over again because the body begins to embed this position as a useful default since the world is always perceived as threatening in some way. In the longer term such posture can compress organs, restrict blood flow to the extremities and contribute to a cycle of feelings such as depression and anxiety. The equivalent position for humans will create tightness in the chest, abdomen, upper shoulders and back of the neck so a massage for someone with anxiety issues would do well to treat these areas.
Are there any specific Massage Techniques for Anxiety?
One of the fastest ways to calm someone down who is anxious is with a good head massage. Slow consistent strokes of medium pressure working from the base of the skull up towards the forehead are great. Just five minutes head massage can work wonders for an overly stressed person. Massaging the hands and feet is also great to quickly relax a person. Again, the strokes should be medium pressure and very slow and consistent. Once the person is somewhat relaxed, one can begin to assess the state of the following muscles:
- Levator Scapula (upper shoulder)
- Upper Trapezius (upper shoulder)
- Pectoralis Major and Minor (chest)
- Sternocleidomastoid (SCM – neck)
- Sternalis (chest)
- Diaphragm (abdominal)
- Rectus Abdominis (abdominal)
Different techniques will work for different areas and I myself am more and more favouring myofascial release and positional release for this kind of setting because it can achieve a good release of muscles without the discomfort that an anxious person my not be ready to experience.
What else can I do for my Anxiety to compliment Massage?
If the anxiety is severe and debilitating the first step is to see a Doctor. Hopefully your doctor is open to natural, holistic, complimentary treatment options such as massage! More and more doctors are referring their clients to massage as part of a stress management regime.
Other helpful things you could try are:
- Seek the guidance of a qualified psychologist
- Commence a regular Yoga practice
- Try meditation (I have a recommended app for this)
- Make sure your diet is healthy and you exercise regularly
- Consider trying out some calming herbs such as:
- Ocimum tenuiflorum
- Withania somnifera (Indian Ginseng)
- Magnolia officinalis
- Poria cocos
- Polygala sibirica
- Citrus reticulata (Citrus peel)
- Try to create a calming morning routine and perhaps also one for before you go to sleep
How can I book a massage with you to help with my Anxiety?
Call 0449 264 980 or
Beyondblue.org.au. (2016). Anxiety. [online] Available at: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety [Accessed 15 Mar. 2016].
Massageenvy.com. (2016). Reduce Anxiety with Massage Therapy. [online] Available at: http://www.massageenvy.com/benefits-of-massage-therapy/massage-for-anxiety.aspx [Accessed 15 Mar. 2016].