Therapeutic Bodywork to Ease Stress and Anxiety

massage for anxiety

These days most people are more in the head and less in the body. We live in a society that doesn’t encourage us to slow down and actually “feel” our body. We stay busy, always on the go, always doing more and feeling less, becoming increasingly stressed out. Indeed the speed often builds to the point where we forget our body altogether. Tension accumulates and leads to a whole range of issues, including struggles with anxiety.

But lest we forget for too long, another way is possible. It’s possible to feel our breath, to tune into our body, to let go and relax. When we do this, we naturally process stress and release it from our system. There are many ways to remember and recover this natural “somatic intelligence.” In this article we’ll look at the benefits of therapeutic bodywork for becoming more embodied and easing the anxiety in our experience.

It’s a little odd to write an article about feeling the body through bodywork, because until you have actually experienced it, it may sound like a foreign language. It’s like having never tasted bread before, and reading a description of how wonderful it is to eat bread. However, that’s part of how we discover and learn new things, by first hearing about them, so let’s take a tour of the benefits of bodywork for easing stress and anxiety.

Stress Reduction

One of the physiological products of accumulated stress is a hormone known as “cortisol.” Physical, mental and emotional stress all increase the production of cortisol. Increased cortisol levels suppress the immune system, elevate blood pressure, impair memory, and increase the prevalence of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious circle because too much stress increases cortisol, and the increased cortisol in turn adds even more stress to our systems. Massage therapy can help break this cycle and bring welcome relief on physical, mental, and emotional levels. It achieves this by directly reducing the levels of cortisol in our body. In a meta analysis of studies on the physiological affects of massage therapy, it was shown that massage reduces cortisol levels by as much as 31%. 

The Pleasure Factor

Just like when you eat a serving of tasty food, receiving good quality bodywork can be equally delicious. It’s not delicious in the sense of taste, but in the sense of “feeling.” Actually “equally” might not be a fair comparison, because the intensity of deliciousness when eating food is limited to the mouth. But with well-applied bodywork, there can be waves of deliciousness that pervade your entire body, expanding throughout all the tissues, and even permeating into the cellular level.

For people who receive bodywork consistently, this pleasure factor is vividly evident, and anecdotal evidence abounds. However there is also solid research and science to back up the reality of the beneficial effects of the pleasure of bodywork. For example research shows that therapeutic massage increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Serotonin and dopamine are both “pleasure hormones” that signal the body to experience pleasure. 

Increasing Somatic Intelligence

When we’re always in our head we simply don’t feel our physical being. But bodywork changes that and gets us feeling and inhabiting our body. Therapeutic touch elicits a wide range of sensations, many of which are beyond description, and each of these sensations awakens new and increasingly deeper levels of body awareness.

Again, this may be difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t experienced it. An analogy for how it works is to consider a conversation. Imagine having a conversation with your friend on a completely new subject. After only a few moments, you’re suddenly aware of a whole new range of reality, which you had never considered before. The same is true with bodywork.

If we don’t take the time to actively be in our body, we become disembodied, we become mostly a brain, and our body becomes the servant.

These new sensations opens up a spectrum of previously untouched and untapped resources. The pleasure you feel as the therapist’s elbow melts through the tension in your hip may teach you how to melt through a stressful moment in your day. The tingles through your spine from the pleasure of the healing hands on your back may awaken a newfound ability to relax and settle into your life. Or, the connections you feel when the therapist is working on one part of your body but interestingly you feel it in a completely different part, might help you realize that things are not always what we think.

Or consider nature, the natural world. Just like the body, if we don’t pay attention to it, we simply forget it’s there. If we don’t take time to go out into nature and appreciate it’s vastness and beauty, in some sense it ceases to exist for us. 

These are just a few poetic musings, and it’s impossible to put into words the possibilities for awakening that can be accessed through the body.

Here is another analogy. When the brain and the body are not connected, it’s a little like an airplane flying ceaselessly above the earth, but never touching down. The plane has a team of specialists, with a very special computer where they are analyzing all the data they see. But, their discoveries are only superficial, at best, and more likely are dangerously out of touch with what’s actually happening down on earth. Similarly when reality is confined to the head, we’re out of touch with our body, and by extension with the world around us. But when you touch down, when you drop down into the body with the help of therapeutic bodywork, a new universe of information and intelligence becomes accessible.

Embodiment

Therapeutic bodywork helps you become more embodied. The caring hands applying nurturing pressure and strokes soothes tension, helps you relax your busy brain, and eases our stress and anxiety. We experience pleasure, and suddenly we are a lot less in our head and a lot more in our body. We inhabit our body, we become more grounded and present – more embodied. Being embodied we are more stronger and more confident, less prone to accumulated stress and anxiety, and more present for the challenges and joys of of everyday life.