Relax, It’s Just Your Nervous System

At some point during every massage, I lose the will to speak.

This came as something of a surprise, as it hadn’t been listed on the McHenry Massage website as one of the various outcomes one might expect from a massage. Improved circulation, yes; temporary loss of speech, no.

More interesting still is that it’s always preceded by several minutes of motor-mouthed yapping, which seems to come out of nowhere. Normally not one for small talk, I become the chatty seat-mate on the cross-country flight as soon as the lotion is applied. “Do you ever wonder if you could really escape a building through its air ducts?” “I pulled up next to a dude on the way here and we were both singing, and I looked over and we made eye contact, but neither one of us stopped singing! At least I didn’t. Come to think of it, maybe he was on the phone.” “Do you have to buy your own massage supplies?”

Perhaps born of self-preservation, my therapist has developed a number of techniques that enable her to shut off my brain at will, usually mid-sentence. “Well, I just had a nagging feeling that I was going to need more than ice cream to trap that bee,” I might be saying, lost in my own pointless story, “but I figured it wouldn’t matter as long as I…ehhhhhhhhh……”

At that point, it’s lights-out, and I might not form a conscious thought for several minutes; convincing my mouth to wake up and articulate a thought usually takes even longer.

Because I can never finish a story during a massage, I have to wonder what sort of mental picture my therapist has pieced together of me. This, I think, must be the mark of a good massage therapist: the quality of treatment is inversely proportional to the number of anecdotes her client has completed.

“I was an engineer but then I decided to quit my job and…ehhhh….”

“My life philosophy is fairly simple: To give of yourself is to…ehhhh….”

“I could never name a favorite family member, but if I had to, it would be…ehhhh…..”

I really wanted to know how she did this, as I figured there would be no end to what my wife Kristen might do in exchange for this information. And so, while my mouth and brain were both in functional order one afternoon, I asked her.

Surprisingly, my therapist’s ability to shut me up has little to do with Vulcan techniques or some need for conversational respite. “It’s just your nervous system,” she said kindly, drawing her fingers down the side of my neck. “There’s no magic switch.”

Her approach to addressing clients’ needs, she explained as I melted into the table, typically begins the moment the client enters the office. She is able to assess their general condition based on posture, using subtle cues such as uneven shoulders or crooked hips to determine which areas might need work.

Once the session begins, she works methodically to identify with her hands whether there are adhesions in the muscles; she can determine this by how the muscle feels. If she locates an adhesion, she will work to break it down as much as she can. If she doesn’t locate an adhesion, then she knows that the client is there for another reason. Most often, whether the client realizes it or not, that reason is stress.

The brain’s response to stress is to activate a subsystem within the central nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS. One of the primary functions of the SNS is to ready our bodies for action in the face of a perceived threat. Anyone who has ever squeegeed the windshield of my wife’s minivan at a gas station late at night while she waits grinning in the passenger seat has experienced the SNS in action. Impish and crafty, Kristen waits until I’ve let my guard down — typically the moment when I’m leaning as far across the hood as possible — and then she reaches over and blasts the horn. The attendant always looks up just in time to see me jerk violently backwards and splatter myself with windshield cleaner. A few minutes later, my heart still thumping, I’ll climb back into the car, completely unaware that the muscles in my shoulders, neck, torso, and limbs have been pressed into action and held there by the sympathetic nervous system. At least, until I take a deep breath and shake it off, while Kristen laughs and accuses me of being wound too tightly.

Though we may not be consciously aware of it, we live in a world that is all blaring horns in dimly-lit gas stations: We can’t miss that train. We must finish that presentation before lunch. That guy behind us WILL NOT stop clearing his throat. All of these stressors stimulate our SNS, and the body responds, as it has for eons, by tensing certain muscles.

“Muscles like these guys here in your neck,” my therapist said, gently rolling my head from side to side to loosen me up. It seemed that simply talking about stress had caused me to tense up, and that’s when it occurred to me just how vulnerable we are to our thoughts and to our environment. If I can tense up on a heated massage table, imagine what my body is putting itself through when I’m hustling to the office amid a sea of bustling commuters, my bag slung over one shoulder, my phone at the ready as I dial my manager’s number.

“Still doing okay?” she asked me.

I said that I was, and so she continued, giving me the low-down on how to stay calm and relaxed despite my stupid, typically American lifestyle.

“If you can,” she said, reviving my shoulders, “when you’re in a stressful situation, you want to engage your parasympathetic nervous system.”

The parasympathetic nervous system — or PsNS, as I imagine precisely zero insiders call it — is essentially the counterbalance to the SNS. Whereas the SNS winds us up, the PsNS calms us down — it’s the body’s natural chill pill, and it is surprisingly potent. When the PsNS is stimulated, the heart slows, blood pressure decreases, and we slip into a state of noticeable calm. It is this transition into calmness that can render us devoid of speech. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help to invoke this response, as can a few other things: meditation, yoga, and — my recent favorite — massage therapy.

Though it’s best to incorporate all of these disciplines into our daily lives, the reality is that most of us won’t — which is too bad, because yoga pants are incredibly comfortable. Meditation and yoga can take a lifetime to master, and relatively few people in our hemisphere are willing to go all in on these disciplines. That leaves massage therapy, which, fortunately for me, is clearly the most passive of the three. Best of all, the effects of a good massage are almost immediate. I say almost because everyone responds to touch differently.

The very presence of a person’s hand against our skin can stimulate either the panic-inducing SNS or the calming PsNS. It just depends upon the circumstances. For some clients, it can take upwards of twenty minutes before their body feels relaxed enough to truly enjoy the massage. In other words, it takes that much time for the SNS to deactivate and for the PsNS to kick in; until the PsNS is activated, the therapist is essentially fighting against the SNS. Some of us, though, are quicker to relax.

“How long does it usually take before I settle in and relax?” I asked.

“You’re one of the quicker ones,” said my therapist. “You tend to respond very early in the sessions.”

“Like, how early?”

“It just depends, but it’s usually within the first few minutes.”

“Nice.” Call me insanely competitive, but I enjoyed knowing that I ranked highly in my relaxation abilities. “Out of all your clients, am I the fastest to activate my parasympathetic nervous system?”

She didn’t say anything, just continued working the fronts of my shoulders.

“Would you consider my relaxation abilities to be superhuman?”

Still no response. Her hands worked the tops of my shoulders now, inching closer to my neck as though she were searching quite deliberately for one particular spot, while I continued to fish for compliments.

“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate my nervous sys…my nervous…my…ehhhh……”

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