You can’t have your home central-heating and air-cooling working efficiently at the same time; they are different systems designed for different tasks. Similarly, the body-brain system cannot run the opposing tasks of being alert, ready-for-action, and repairing, growing and digesting. We can be in either ALERT mode or in RECUPERATION mode, not both.
When we need to be ready-for-action, our muscles are activated, blood is sent to them in readiness. Heart rate speeds up while digestion and immune activity are dampened down as non-essential for now. Our senses are primed for vigilance and brain activity directed to identify problems and find solutions. Breathing is fast and high in the chest, ready for short-term action. We are restless and vigilant all under the control of the sympathetic nervous system.
When we feel safe and calm, a completely different set of conditions are brought into play by the parasympathetic nervous system so that the body-brain can focus on the necessary housekeeping of repair, restoration, growth and digestion. The so-called relaxation response is a cacophony of biological changes which shift our physiology to health maintenance. Blood pressure drops and blood moves from muscles back to digestion. Enzymes are released again to digest food, and inflammation is reduced. Even our brain repairs. Networks of neurons switch into repair mode sorting out everything from memory to cognitive impairment and empathy.
Relaxation influences gene expression within the first 15 minutes. Research shows that as we relax, genes involved in energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, and insulin secretion are activated allowing improved ability to utilize energy from food. Even the aging process is slowed by relaxation. At the ends of our chromosomes (DNA strands) are sections called telomeres. These shorten with age. The more relaxation we do, the less shortening of telomeres occurs.
Relaxing is not just about feeling nice but about shifting a whole set of physical and psychological conditions from one mode to another.
The bad news is that relaxation does not necessarily occur just because we are not busy, not stressed, or even when we are sleeping.
Although a lack of action or threat should be sufficient to switch our body to recuperation mode, modern life does not have an off button. Watching, reading, or listening to stimulating entertainment does not induce relaxation. There is constant sensory stimulation even during non-work time. Rarely does popular media instil the sense of ‘safety and belonging’ necessary to switch off ALERT mode. Even the thought of tomorrow’s work schedule can prevent you relaxing fully the evening before. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that sleep will induce a relaxation response as overly active minds are unable to settle even when exhausted.
The problem is that prolonged time in ALERT mode leads to health problems because circulation, immunity and digestion, held in constant preparedness, never get a chance to repair.
When we think of bodywork we think of relaxation: a soothing massage, gentle yoga session, or deeply calming cranio-sacral treatment. Research supports this assumption with numerous studies showing that mindful bodywork (such as yoga) is far better than exercise (such as swimming) at reducing stress; and receiving a massage is far more effective than just resting. It is important to note that bodywork is not always about relaxation. If deemed appropriate by the practitioner, sessions can be deliberately challenging, uncomfortable, stimulating or enlivening. But, when relaxation is desirable, bodywork is incredibly effective at bringing it on.
How Does Bodywork Induce Relaxation?
Bodywork induces relaxation by adjusting interoception --the information your brain receives about yourself:
· Removing ‘alert’ information
· Adding ‘safe’ information
These adjustments are caused by the therapeutic environment, the professional relationship, and from specific techniques used by the practitioner. Informational adjustment is such an important mechanism of bodywork that it has a blog of its own.
Professional bodywork is a safe environment. There is no threat of pain or invasion of privacy or self. Safety is enhanced when you feel confident that your practitioner knows what they are doing and is non-judgemental. This lack of danger is an important element in switching off ALERT mode.
Mindful bodywork is usually silent while the manual therapist ‘listens’ to your body or while you mindfully sense your own movements. Silence has been shown to induce brain repair (neurogenesis). Silence is incredibly rare in modern society. This lack of noise is an important element in switching off ALERT mode.
When receiving hands-on bodywork, nothing is expected of you. Not only do you have nothing to do but you cannot, for the time-being, do anything else. When practicing mindful movement alone or in a group, again, you are not doing any of your normal tasks and so there is no ‘demand’ on you to do anything else. This lack of imminent action is an important element in switching off ALERT mode.
You and your therapist have dedicated this set time to your wellbeing. This is nurturing—and nurturing is the antidote to threat. You are being attended to, giving yourself dedicated time for your own wellbeing. Depending on the mode of bodywork, nurturing may be utilized as part of the therapy. Being heard, being understood by an attentive ‘other’ is hugely beneficial because nurturing is an antidote to feeling threatened and is an important element in switching off ALERT mode.
During mindful bodywork, your attention is drawn around your body; you notice how every part of your body feels or, sometimes, realise how difficult it is to feel your own internal conditions. Your attention shifts from external considerations, heightened emotional states or overly active mental states to proprioception (where your body parts are) and interoception (how you feel inside). Because your brain is constantly updating information, your perception of ‘how you are’ changes with your change in attention. This shift of attention away from habitual mental or emotional patterns to body awareness is an important element in switching off ALERT mode. It is so effective that it is recommended as a method of self-calming during panic attacks.
In addition to a providing a conducive environment for relaxation, your bodywork therapist also has specific techniques for putting in ‘safe’ information or removing ‘alert’ information.
Removing ‘alert’ information is part of all bodywork modalities: relaxing tight shoulders, undoing a habitual frown, loosening a tight back—all patterns of alertness constantly feeding back to the brain (via interoception) that you are stressed. Once removed, feedback to the brain contains less alertness and more relaxation information.
There are also techniques for adding ‘safe’ information to the body-brain system. Taking just one example from the many available, research shows that compression of trigger points causes increased activity of parasympathetic nervous activity—the section of the autonomic nervous system which activates recuperation mode. Blood pressure, heart rate and fatigue are all reduced by pressing certain trigger points. In other words, compression of certain locations on the body switches receivers into recuperation mode. Although the efficacy of this one compression technique is experimentally proven, the mechanism is not yet established.
Bodyworkers have numerous techniques for inducing the relaxation response in others but we can summarize them all as information adjustment. The body-brain is informed (by the situation and/or the practitioner and/or their techniques) that it is appropriate to switch from ALERT to RECUPERATION mode to make good on repairs, growth and digestion.
Bhasin MK et al (2013) The relaxation response changes gene expression, PLos ONE
Kuo, B., Bhasin, MK, et al, (2015) Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated with a Relaxation Response Mind-Body Intervention in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. PLos ONE: 10 (4): e0123861 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123861
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