Why do you feel “high” after a massage? Why and how massage works!

4734545741_d8ce3fb338It’s all in your head
Ever try to walk, drive, or try to multitask right after having a great massage? Most people find tasks that require intricate coordination of mind and/or body difficult in the minutes that follow a massage. Most people report feeling “high”– an extreme sense of well being, relaxation, and pleasure is very often the result of having a massage. And remarkably, these sensations do not require even an hour of massage to develop. As little as 15 minutes of massage can produce feelings of relaxation and well being.

So why does massage feel so good? What is there about the physical action in massage that sends these feel good messages to our bodies? The secret lies in the brain.

Douglas Nelson, a neuromuscular therapist  and founder of Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars says this about the science behind the mind/massage/body connection:
“For many decades, the prevailing wisdom was that emotions are experienced in the mind and, as a result, those powerful emotions then affect our body. For example, when someone offends us, we have the emotional experience of anger. Shortly thereafter, we experience physical symptoms of anger, such as increased muscle tension, constricted breathing, and an increased heart rate. On the other hand, powerful positive emotions like joy and happiness also have corresponding physical effects. Our emotions and thoughts have physical consequences. As it turns out, however, the new scientific understanding reveals that these mind-body experiences are at least bi-directional, if not completely the other way around. The emerging science is providing some really good evidence that the physical sensation can lead to the emotion, instead of the emotion manifesting as a physical experience. Your mind is always trying to make sense of what the body experiences. The brain needs a reason for what it experiences; we interpret meaning so we know how to respond appropriately. As an example, let’s imagine you have an increased respiration and pulse rate. Are you excited or are you fearful? When you think about it, the physical experiences of excitement and fear are almost identical. The mind must decide which emotion it is based on the context of the experience. The experience of physical ease is then interpreted by the brain as being a sign of emotional ease. Relaxation of the body is also relaxation of the mind, as evidenced by the fact that the same class of drugs (benzodiazepines) given as muscle relaxants is also used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Furthermore, when you return to work with that emotional framework, it changes what you notice around you as well. Little annoyances don’t seem as disturbing. Since attention is selective, your peaceful and positive emotional state predisposes you to notice lots of little blessings that you previously might have overlooked. This process becomes very self-reinforcing.”

The brain/body connection
In addition to the brain synthesizing experience into physical reactions (and visa-versa), the brain also releases hormones that create physical responses to both stress and relaxation.  According to the MAYO clinic, “When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.”

Conversely, studies have shown that relaxing situations and activities such as massage stimulate the “feel good” hormones of Oxytocin, while reducing the “stress enhancing” hormone adrenocorticotropin, promoting a feeling of well being, relaxation and pleasure after only 15 minutes of moderate-pressure massage of the upper back.

Why Interrupting stress hormone cycles is important
According to MAYO clinic, interrupting the body’s stress responses could save your life. 

The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. And everyday stressors include commute driving, work related stress, bad diet and lack of exercise.

The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

You listened to your body’s cry for help and got a massage–now what?
You feel great leaving your massage therapists studio. You want to keep this feeling for as long as possible, realizing the stresses of life will creep back in soon. How can you reap the most benefit from your massage sessions? Practice these “self care” and the benefits of your last massage will last a little longer:

Drink plenty of water!
Your massage therapist will most likely advise you to drink plenty of water after your massage. Water is one of the most important elements of your body’s ability to function efficiently. When you have had a massage, the muscles, bones and facia (the sticky stuff that coats your bones and muscles) have been manipulated to increase circulation of both blood and lymph. Lymph is the clear fluid that “cleans” your body of waste in the form of dead cells that pass through the lymph node system. Increased lymph circulation can result in an increase of movement of waste through our bodies. Waste is eliminated through the urinary and persperation apparatus. Increasing your water intake will help your body rid itself of waste more effectively.

Continue to relax your mind and body
If at all possible, don’t jump right into driving a car, going back to work, or going to a difficult gym class. Instead, read a book, take a hot bath, or do something that promotes and extends the body’s relaxation responses and doesn’t trigger counterproductive stress responses.

Monitor your body’s response to the massage
Sometimes, especially if you are unused to having massage or the pressure used was heavy, you will experience soreness. In the cases of soreness, icing and heat, 10 minutes of ice alternating with 20 minutes of heat, may do the trick to soothe these areas. Over the counter pain relievers that reduce inflammation, such as Ibuprofin or Asprin, can also help. Drinking plenty of water will help the sore muscles recover more quickly.