Stress is meant to be a defense system for your body—helpful if you’re running from a tiger! But long-term stress deregulates a system that’s built to deal with a short-term response.
What are the effects of chronic stress?
Chronic stress can have many different effects on the body. When cortisol (a stress hormone) becomes elevated, muscles can become tense, and the heart rate and blood pressure can increase. This can become a positive feedback loop—meaning a vicious cycle!
Another stress hormone, adrenaline, can actually create scars in blood vessels in cases of chronic stress.
Increasingly, we are discovering that stress can also play a role in the development of disease. Stress can suppress the immune system, while, conversely, a hug can boost it.
How can massage therapy help with stress?
Studies have shown that massage therapy reduces cortisol levels and increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It can reduce pain levels and depression while enhancing attention and immune function. In addition, it can lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
Massage therapy for stress reduction typically targets muscle tension (stress is commonly held in neck and shoulder musculature), muscles associated with breathing, and of course, whatever areas help you feel relaxed.
Essential oils can be used in your massage or at home to reduce stress. Most of us think of lavender, but there are many others that can help: geranium, bergamot, grapefruit, and neroli lemon, to name a few. And some love the mint family for achy, stressed muscles and headaches—peppermint, eucalyptus, wintergreen, and camphor.
What are other methods to reduce stress?
At home, breathing exercises can be used daily to help regulate your autonomic nervous system as well as improve your heart rate variability. Breathing into the abdomen with a slow exhale can help diffuse nervousness, stress, and anxiety. It has been shown that overbreathing or chest breathing can trigger a panic attack. A sensitivity to lactic acid imbalance is also associated with panic attacks.
Box breathing is an exercise where you inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold again for 4, then repeat. I also like Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which you can find explained on his website.
Soaking in an epsom salt bath can reduce acidity (i.e. lactic acid) and increase magnesium, which can ease sore muscles and help you sleep. Create a spa-like environment with candles, essential oils in a diffuser (or just a few drops on the candle near the wick), relaxing music, a good book, and, if you are like me—chocolate elevates the entire experience! You can dig into some of the benefits of chocolate in this paper.