Peripheral nerves, including sensory nerves in our skin, relay information between the brain and the body. These nerves send signals to the autonomic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing.
With chronic stress, the defensive sympathetic nervous system can get stuck in the “on” position, affecting overall health. “People in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze can have more inflammation, pain, lower immune function, sleep problems, weight gain, anxiety, and depression,” explains licensed massage therapist Amy Daws.
Stimulating the peripheral nerves with massage can switch the nervous system to the parasympathetic mode, which governs rest-and-digest functions. It lowers cortisol and increases oxytocin, a feel-good neurochemical that helps us feel connected and loved.
Massage can also instigate theta waves in the brain, which are associated with a state of deep relaxation verging on light sleep. “I know when I hear a client’s breathing change that they’re in that half-awake, half-asleep state,” Nescelle Caberto, LMT, a massage therapist at LifeSpa in Overland Park, Kan. says. “It’s a way to encourage being in your body and the present moment, versus thinking about the future or past.”
These results can have a positive effect on overall outlook. A 2020 study in Brain Sciences compared the effects of massage with those of a muscle-relaxation mindfulness exercise in 57 outpatients with depression. Researchers found that massage resulted in greater improvements, particularly with regard to tension, internal unrest, and hopelessness.
This was excerpted from “Hands On” which was published in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.