The Anatomy of Fight or Flight for Massage Therapists

By Jennifer Shaw, LMT, Guest Blogger

Does this apply? Origin: Central Nervous System Insertion: Preganglionic Fibers Action: Fight or Flight

When I told a friend of mine I was writing a blog article about the sympathetic nervous system, his response was, “Fight or flight. Rest and digest. The end.”

If only the nervous system was that simple! Later he added, “And you might want to flesh that out a little bit.”

The Anatomy of Tug of War

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) consists of motor neurons that control smooth muscles, cardiac muscles and glands, monitoring visceral organs and blood vessels and providing input information for the Central Nervous System (CNS).

The ANS is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Each system has two sets of nerve bodies. The preganglionic set is located in the CNS. The other set is in ganglia outside the CNS. The preganglionic cell bodies of the sympathetic system are located in the spinal cord between T1 and L2 or L3.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems can stimulate and inhibit bodily functions, but what is important to note is that the two systems work in opposition to each other – like tug of war. The cardiac cycle is a good example this relationship – the sympathetic system causes the heart to race in fight-or-flight situations, and the parasympathetic system is responsible for bringing heart back to its resting heart rate when the situation ends.

The body is always regulating and re-regulating itself to a “middle point.”

In tug of war, the goal is not to get dragged through the dirt. For the body and for these two systems of the ANS, the goal is homeostasis.

The Sympathetic Nervous System at Work

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for emotionally exciting situations – situations involving fear, anger, embarrassment and stress. (Hello, fight-or-flight!)

In these situations, the Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • Increases the heart rate, oxygen intake and blood supply.
  • Releases glucose into the blood.
  • Stimulates sweat glands.
  • Reduces digestion.

The Massage Therapist and Fight or Flight

A client who arrives late to his or her massage appointment is probably “excited,” slightly sweating and flushed. While you might be glad that at least they know they are late, your job is probably to get them to relax, so knowing how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is important.

Luckily, we are massage therapists! Massage therapy is an effective way to activate the body’s natural desire to be balanced. The opening stroke of a traditional Swedish massage – often times a long, slow effleurage stroke down the erector spinae muscle group – will trigger the parasympathetic system to bring the body’s metaphorical tug-of-war rope back to its “middle point.”

What tips, tricks or techniques do you find helpful in your massage sessions? Use the comment section below to share your thoughts.