Author | Psoas Massage Therapist, Rachael Wilson Rachael Wilson is always looking to make your bodywork experience even better than before. A common trend she sees among clients is that they don't know how to truly relax and that this can be counterproductive to the massage experience. So she's delivered some words of wisdom on simple exercises you can do throughout your day that will help you relax in general and that will prepare you for your next session at Psoas!

Q. So Rachael, what does stress have to do with my muscle pain? Can relaxation really make a difference?

Muscle tension and pain can be the result of many different factors, but stress can have a lot to do with it and yes, relaxation really can make a difference!

Both stress and relaxation are complex physiological processes involving your whole body and can have a BIG effect on overall wellness, including muscle tension and pain. For many of us, relaxing is actually really hard. We don't know how to do it and we may never have actually felt what it's like. And by "relaxing," I'm not talking about sitting on the couch watching hours of Netflix. I mean the actual physiological process of reversing the stress (fight or flight) response of the nervous system. Biologically speaking, stress is our body trying to protect us from danger, which is a very useful thing. (Thanks, body!) The problem is that our nervous system hasn't caught up to the demands of the modern world.

Danger used to come in the form of an animal trying to eat us. When the animal ran away our bodies automatically relaxed. Now danger (stress) comes in the form of traffic jams, demanding jobs, the threat of losing those demanding jobs and a million other things. Our stressors don't just run into the woods anymore, they're constantly with us, so our bodies never know when it's okay to relax. Thus, physical relaxation is something we may have to learn how to do in order to create healthy balance in our bodies.

This kind of stress often results in muscle pain. You stress out while hunching over your computer at work and habitually tense your neck and round your shoulders. Because who has time to care about posture!? There are things to be done! Now, now, now!  The muscles are so tight all the time that eventually they get tired and sore. Then one day you sleep wrong and ouch! A muscle in your back has seized up and really hurts! You can't seem to relax it, because your muscles aren't used to relaxing and the pain won't go away. You stress out about the pain then you read this article and now you're stressed out about stressing out. The cycle continues.

Q. Does massage help? Are there any particular techniques that are useful?  

Massage: Enter your friendly deep tissue therapist. I have good news! Bodywork can help loosen up that chronically tense muscle tissue and start reversing those patterns. By manually manipulating the tense area, we encourage the loosening of muscles and surrounding tissues, increase oxygen and circulation to the area and allow for more natural, relaxed posture. Massage is the perfect way to kick-start the relaxation process.  AND, if you can learn how to relax deeply during and after your massage, the effects of the massage can be much greater and last much longer.

Deep Breathing: One of the most reliable ways to create physical relaxation in your body is with deep breathing. The massage table is a great place to try out and practice deep breathing. Don't be fooled. This sounds deceptively simple. But for many of us, the physical sensation of relaxation is unfamiliar and doesn't come easily. And deep breathing can seem boring, corny or even very emotional at first. Don't fret! It's worth it. With practice it will become easier and more natural. Also, relaxation techniques can be very personal--what works for one person might not work for another. I encourage people to try different strategies. There are lots of amazing resources out there to help: yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-focused therapy to name a few.

Counting your breath: A very effective and my favorite of the breathing techniques is very basic. Inhale gently for a count of three, hold your breath for a count of three, gently exhale for a count of 5, and hold for another count of three. Repeat 3-5 times. This slows the breath and emphasizes the moment when the diaphragm is most relaxed, at the end of exhalation. Notice where you are holding your tension and see if you can let that area relax deeper when exhaling. Use this technique to prepare your body for a massage when you are in the waiting room or lying on the table as the session starts.

Visualizations: I've noticed that a lot of people respond well to visualizations. Try these: As you exhale, imagine your body growing heavy and sinking into the table or chair. I like to think of the body as a snow globe that's just been shaken up. The energy in your body is the snow whirling around and as you exhale, the snow starts to slowly settle to the bottom of your body. You can do this for each part of the body at a time, starting with your head and working downward. For some, it can be very powerful to visualize your breath actually coming from the area that hurts. This strategy can be particularly helpful when receiving very deep tissue or trigger point massage.

With practice and focus and help from your massage therapist, you will gain a greater knowledge about your body, recognize when the stress response is taking over, and find the ability to consciously choose relaxation. We'd love to help you move a little farther down the road towards health and wellness!