Massage for The Stress Response

May 16, 2018 5:59 pm Published by

Human Beings are amazing creatures. Today, observing the Pandas in their enclosure at our local zoo, two watchers, a man and a woman gladly gazed as mama panda was reclining against a large rock. As she calmly crunched down on her favorite bamboo chew, I noticed the two humans starting to stir. Why? Because they were situated near a waste basket: Hornets were examining the inventory and began to protect their booty. The woman, fanning the air swept away a few of the Hornets while the man, more panicked, began backing away and started to move and then run away. Interesting…

Again, why?

Stressors are a part of our everyday world and we all respond to them differently. In the case of the Hornets, two different responses were seen. One, the calm and collective woman, and two, the scared evasive man.

Perceived stress and the fight or flight response are managed internally by our nervous system. As stated earlier responses can be different. With the hornets, both the man and the woman had the alarm system in their body go off.  So, how does this alarm system engage?

At the base of the brain a tiny region called the hypothalamus sets off this alarm system. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals the system prompts your adrenal glands at the top of your kidneys to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supply. Cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone, increases glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream.

Cortisol also lessens functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a stress response. (Fight or Flight)  What this means is, any systems that are deemed unnecessary in that bout of stress are negated. The immune response (our ability to fight off disease), suppression of the digestive system (our ability to supply energy and dispose of waste), the reproductive system and our growth processes are all altered.

This complex natural alarm system (GAS) also talks to regions of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

The General Adaptation Syndrome  ( GAS )

STRESS is defined as the body’s non-specific response to any demands made upon it. (Seyle, 1974)

The definition of stress was developed by Hans Seyle a world renowned Canadian endocrinologist and a leading authority on stress and its effects. This Canadian endocrinologist outlined this concept to explain the effects of long term stress on the body. It helps to explain why stress can cause illness. GAS refers to stages the body goes through according to the duration of the stressor.

*Alarm – the body’s first exposure to the stressor. Cortisol levels are high

*Resistance/Adaptation – continued exposure to the stressor. The body tries to resist the stress and adapt to it.

*Exhaustion – results after long exposure to the stressor. The body has adapted but eventually the adaptive energy is exhausted. The ALARM stage reappears. At this point the reaction spreads through other systems in the body. Initially, the adaptation occurs in the most appropriate systems but with the overuse of these systems, other areas of the body (systems) are affected.

Revisiting the man and woman at the zoo, once their stressor (hornets) had been removed, the alarm ended and, system returned to normal. Their fight or flight response would then wait for another stressor to act upon. As well, if the stressors were always present, the alarm system would remain on. It is important to note here; long term activation of the stress response and overuse of the stress hormone cortisol may affect all of the body’s processes causing burnout and possible sickness. Today, stressors are always present. How we perceive them will determine how we act on them. The stress response is the body’s way of dealing with pressure. It’s ability to cope. It is the body’s coping mechanism.

Over a century ago, stress was not viewed as it is today. In that time, stress was primarily referring to an individual’s’ strong effort or the forcefulness and the pressure exuded by the individual.

Oh how times have changed!

Today, stress implies the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Stress is the result of this pressure. Too much of it contributes to the individual’s inability to cope.

As we have seen earlier, stressors can come in many shapes and forms. Physical, psychological, emotional… Hornets!

Stress is differential. It is dependent on the individual’s ability to cope. And, we all act to it differently. Work, family, relationships, money management, travel, anything that can make you feel overwhelmed can trigger stress. Stress can affect how you feel, how you rationalize, how you adapt to situations. Stress affects how the body functions physiologically, psychologically and emotionally.

The stress response is the body’s way in handling these physical, psychological and emotional stressors. It is necessary and vital to our sustainability.

The stress response allows us to engage or to disengage with the stressor. If we look back on our friends enjoying a day at the zoo, both the man and the woman chose to act on their stressor albeit differently. If we impose the GAS concept on their situation, we can see how each chose to respond.  We can see how the stages are utilized and where they possible might finish.


What does all of this have to do with massage?  Reduction of stress and the stress response of course!

Massage is soothing. Massage is relaxing. Massage therapy can counter the stress response by acting on it with the relaxation response. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the ‘rest and digest’ counter to the ‘Fight or Flight’ Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Today our nervous systems are bombarded with stress. If our nervous system is being hit by constant stress our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tries to “sympathize” with the stress response. To fight or flee. Massage therapy for stress reduction is directly related to its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and elicit the psychological relaxation response. Inducing the relaxation response counters the damaging effects of a chronic stress response bringing balance to the body’s systems. Here are some specific health benefits of the relaxation response:

  1. Decreased  oxygen consumption and metabolic rate, less strain on energy resources
  2. Increased intensity and frequency of alpha brain waves associated with deep relaxation
  3. Reduced blood lactates, blood substances associated with anxiety
  4. Significantly decreased blood pressure in individuals with hypertension
  5. Reduced heartrate and slower respiration
  6. Decreased muscle tension
  7. Increased blood flow to internal organs
  8. Decreased anxiety, fear, and phobias, and increased positive mental health
  9. Improved quality of sleep

Today, stress is a fact of life. Stressors are everywhere. At the home, at the workplace, on the road and as we’ve seen earlier, even at the zoo. They come in many forms. Seen or unseen. Spoken and unspoken. Massage therapy has a positive impact in reducing the effects of stress on the body. Massage was found to decrease a person’s perceived stress and anxiety levels in certain studies. Massage increases a person’s awareness of tense areas in the body which enables the person to develop a more relaxed posture and better breathing!

Massage Therapy is a hands on method in reducing stress and the stress response. In tapping into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) we can counter the effects of stressors and bring about some balance to our overused body systems. The key is rest and relaxation… and of course, to receive massage… For goodness sake!


George S. Everly, Jr. & Robert Rosenfeld  (1981) The Nature and treatment of the Stress Response:  A Practical Guide for Clinicians Plenum Press, New York

Patricia J Benjamin & Frances M. Tappan  (2005) Tappan’s handbook of healing massage techniques: Classic, Holistic, and emerging methods, 4th ed.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

Rattray & Ludwig (2005) Clinical Massage Therapy: Understanding, assessing, and treating over 70 conditions, 11th ed. Elora, Ontario: Talus Inc.


Written by Massage Therapist Rick Hofmann

Visit Rick’s Bio Page Here

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