Massage and the Nervous System: Part Three

Part three of Massage and the Nervous System. (See parts two and one.)

As massage therapists we know how to get our hands on muscles and connective tissues. But now we see somehow we have to get our hands on the nervous system because otherwise it’s a bit like flipping light switches with no electricity – some action but no deeper change.

So how do we get our hands on the nervous system?

Autonomic Nervous System

The diencephalon houses among other amazing objects, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the primary orienter in our lives toward pleasure and away from pain. A pea-sized structure, it nonetheless is in charge of the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a full spectrum system which goes to glands, smooth and cardiac muscles, and other organs. It is largely responsible for our most profound reactions to the world. Its experiential spectrum inclines us to the deepest relaxations, to everyday balance, and at its most extreme, to emergency reactions.

A high level of massage therapy can affect the autonomic system in dramatic ways:

  •  Change the set point – most people are too highly strung and under stress. Massage, especially repeated applications, will change the “set point” of the autonomic nervous system. We slowly begin to feel that more relaxed is more our normal and preferred state rather than being more tense.
  • Inhabit the full spectrum – some people have difficulty relaxing; others fully experiencing their excitement. By relieving tension from the muscles and the nervous system, massage facilitates the autonomic “range of motion” so that the person can more fluidly move from one energy state to another.
  • Cultivate the fertile mid-ground – “Between living and dreaming there is a third thing.” the poet Machado wrote. Edison used to go to sleep with a rock in his hand. When he fell asleep it would drop and wake him up. He persisted until he could be almost asleep and yet not drop the rock. Why? That was the state, he found, out of which all his inventions flowed. When our unconscious and conscious minds are in communication with each other in this fertile midground of awareness, we are at our most creative.

Massage, inducing more balanced states of mind, emotion and body, allows for the creative utilization of the fertile mid-ground in problem-solving and growth.

Some Controversy

Lately, there has been some controversy over whether the energy-based approach has the same legitimacy as the orthopedic approach to massage.

“Energy” is a commonsense word we all use to describe, among other things, the nervous system and the role of emotion, mind, and electrical intelligence in our lives. We could reduce our understanding of energy to chemistry, but who would rather for example want to give up the term “love”, preferring to tell those you care about that you have a predominance of phenylethylamines in their presence? The language of energy comes closer to capturing and understanding experience, than does that of chemistry.

When we consider the critical role of energy and the nervous system, we see that the myofascial system constitutes just one part of what we need to affect as therapists. To fully support health we need to address both energy and structure.

Let us honor both of these wondrous human worlds. Let us see their unity; affirm that good science takes the whole into account, not just the part; and that good art – and massage is undoubtedly an art as well as a science – empowers peace and promotes harmony in our whole being. That touch which knows how to contact our deepest energy and structure bears the promise of a better life for one and all.