The Enemy Within – Hidden Muscle Tension That’s Making You Miserable

The Enemy Within

What is muscle rigidity?
Your body is a miraculous machine for coping with stress. But, like any machine, it occasionally manifests a bug–a bug that can turn into a serious problem.

When you face stress, your trusty allies, your muscles, contract and tense. They become rigid as your body prepares to fight or flee whatever stressor you’re facing. In this way, your body is trying to keep you alive. You may not be facing a threat to your life when a client or your boss yells at you, but your body doesn’t know the difference. When that stressor passes, your muscles are supposed to relax, because everything is fine.

But what if everything isn’t fine? Suppose, after being yelled at by a client, you start to drive home and almost get into an accident? Or find that you’re overdrawn in your bank account? Suddenly, your muscles are tensing up yet again. If this level of stress keeps up, your body will get the message to always be ready to defend itself, keeping your muscles rigid and tense. While many of your muscles may relax as the stressor passes, some of them may stay rigid in an effort to keep you alive.

This can happen whether the stress is unexpected, or if you intentionally inflict stress on your body through exercise.

Mindfulness
Suddenly the friendly muscles that have been trying to keep you alive have become your enemy. Not only are they not really helping you survive, they’re making everything worse. As the stress continues, more and more of your muscles become tense and rigid. This can develop into debilitating chronic pain. It can affect your posture and create a chain reaction of tension as your body twists itself into a knot trying to stay ready for whatever fresh hell you might be in for.

What’s even more insidious is that you may not even notice this happening until it manifests as a persistent pain. This rigidity and tension can build up in your body, filling your senses with a kind of tense “noise” you eventually stop noticing. After all, you’re too busy pleasing your boss, avoiding car accidents, and balancing the checkbook, right? The busyness of life can easily make you ignore the stress and tension that’s mounting in your body until it manifests as some pain or disease that won’t be ignored. Unless you do something about it.

Those of you who have received massages before may understand this from personal experience. As your massage therapist releases tension throughout your body, may help you discover mucles you didn’t even know were there. As rigid muscles are gently encouraged to become soft and smooth, little pains that have become like background noise are suddenly, blessedly silenced.

Book your next massage when you’re done reading this.

The cure
There are several ways to prevent a build up of muscle rigidity caused by stress. Our favorite, of course, is regular massage, but even that isn’t a complete solution. In any case, not everyone can afford regular massage (though it might not be as out-of-reach as you might think).

Mindfulness is key. Do things that will strengthen your mind-body connection. You can start with something as simple as turning off all distractions during your meals. The point is to help yourself become more aware of your body and what messages it’s sending you, to tune in enough so that you can detect persistent tension and small pain signals coming from your muscles and connective tissues.

Exercise, however moderate, can dramatically reduce muscle rigidity and tension. Yes, exercise can be stressful on your body. It’s supposed to be! Inflicting moderate stress on your joints, muscles, and heart in this way helps your body be more agile in coping with the every-day stressors and hassles that come your way. Remember, though, to consciously and deliberately relax your muscles after tensing them in that systematic way. Stretching is a great way to do this, but there are other methods you can do any time.

Progressive relaxation
Progressive relaxation is a guided meditation practice that helps you turn your attention to each muscle group in turn, breathing deeply. Your guide talks you through putting each muscle group through a slight tension and then relaxation, literally from head to toe. Many of these exercises can be found for free on YouTube. There are several excellent recordings done by psychiatrists and other professionals available for sale at a very reasonable price. It usually only takes 10 to 30 minutes, and is well worth the effort. It’s almost as good as getting a massage, and can even be a great way to help you sleep better.

Massage, exercise, and progressive relaxation are the primary ways to cope with stress-induced muscle rigidity, but more important than these is to try to manage the amount of stress in your life. This might entail some dramatic lifestyle changes as you try to slow your pace and live your more deliberately and with a stronger mind-body connection. If you’ve recently experienced a series of dramatic or traumatic life events, the psychological component may also need to be addressed with the help of mental health professionals.

But why bother? You feel fine, right? Do you, though? Check in with your body regularly. What does it need? What do you feel from day to day? Nobody lives in bliss all the time, but you’re not supposed to be totally miserable all the time, either. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is sending you signals to make a change in order to help you survive. Listen to that, and take to heart some of the suggestions above.

As with everything on this blog, none of this information should be construed as medical advice or care. The employees of The Good Life Massage, including the writers and editor of this blog, are not medical doctors. Consult with your physician before making any changes to improve your health.

Note: stress is not the only cause of muscle rigidity. It can be a symptom of a number of diseases including Parkinson’s, tetanus, multiple sclerosis, and many more. This post refers only to muscle rigidity caused by stress. You may need to consult your doctor for chronic pain or stress that won’t go away through some of the means described in this post.

Tom Gunn is the marketing director and blog editor for The Good Life Massage. You can hire him to help develop your brand, logo, and content marketing strategy by contacting him at tomgunn@gmail.com

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Talking Through It: Conversation Do’s and Don’t for Massage

Talking Through It

Your massage is your own, so of course you have some latitude in customizing your experience. Massage therapy is one of those self-care treatments comparable to getting your hair done: you’re working with someone one-on-one in a vulnerable position. Not only are you in close physical proximity to your massage therapist, you’re undressed in a private room getting touched by them–it doesn’t get more vulnerable than that!

Naturally, a relationship of trust will develop between you and your therapist. Not only do we expect this, it’s encouraged! As your therapist gets to know your body’s unique needs and quirks, they can provide better massage with regular treatments. That personal trust and connection can play a vital role in the healing process.

Having said this, it’s important to understand that there are boundaries and limitations to that relationship, and that the conversation shared in a massage setting isn’t exempt from these.

What can I say?
Nothing, if you choose! As a rule, your practitioner will probably read your social cues. If you seem game to talk, they may engage you and start a chat while they work on you. If you don’t initiate a conversation, they’ll leave you to enjoy the massage in a peaceful, quiet setting.

You can also feel free to give your massage therapist feedback. Phrases like “That’s too deep!” or “Can you ease up on the pressure there?” or “That stroke is kind of chafing right there.” are all appropriate ways to help guide your practitioner and make your massage experience as good as it can be.

If you want to talk, that’s fine, but keep it light. Try to avoid heavy or potentially offensive topics. Would you discuss what you’re about to say with a stranger on the bus? If not, maybe reconsider your choice of topic.

If you’d like to talk and get to know your therapist over several sessions, that’s great. Just keep a few things in mind:

Massage therapist, not “Therapist”
It’s common for people come in for massage who are under serious stress. But the scope of massage therapy is only to address the physical component of healing and stress relief. The mental and psychological components should be handled by trained mental health professionals. You may develop a strong rapport with your massage therapist, but that doesn’t mean they have the training or skill to talk you through your stresses and emotional difficulties.

You wouldn’t expect a licensed family therapist or psychologist to give you a massage, would you? Of course not. The difference there is that those professionals don’t touch you, except to maybe shake your hand. A massage, however, can include a great deal of talking, and even emotional release. Clients under a great deal of stress have even been known to sob through their massage as painful emotions are released along with the muscle tension. But that doesn’t mean your massage therapist can or should become your therapist. Bring your mental health problems to a mental health professional.

Don’t ask for a date, for heaven’s sake
There’s nothing wrong with finding your massage therapist attractive, and the relatively intimate setting of touch therapy might unintentionally inspire romantic or sexual thoughts. But please: keep those thoughts and feelings to yourself during the massage.

Your massage therapist is there to help, and it’s completely inappropriate to flirt, touch them back, hold their hand, ask for dates, or try to initiate a romantic relationship with them. By the same token, your massage therapist has no business making romantic or sexual advances of any kind. In fact, such behavior at The Good Life Massage is grounds for termination.

Even if the advance would be innocent or welcome under different circumstances, it’s completely inappropriate during a massage. Besides, it makes the session far more uncomfortable and awkward. If you find that you’re developing romantic feelings for your massage therapist, consider getting your massage from someone else from now on. After all, we have several practitioners to choose from.

We won’t “take sides”
As people start talking, it can be natural to progressively get more personal. You might even feel comfortable enough to talk about personal relationships or conflicts. This is totally understandable. We all need to vent sometimes. But don’t expect your massage therapist to “take your side” or commiserate with you like a personal friend might. They might say “It sounds like you and your partner have some things to work out. I hope that works out okay,” or something equally neutral. We’ll help you release the physical tension from your whatever personal drama is impacting your life, but it’s not our place to join you in dwelling on it.

So, yes, go ahead and chat! Or don’t! But understand that your massage is a professional exchange. Yes, it’s a intimate, even a little personal, but within certain limits that are worth keeping in mind.

Book your next massage now.

Tom Gunn is the marketing director and the blog editor for The Good Life Massage. You can hire him to assist you with content marketing, social media, and logo/brand development by contacting him at tomgunn@gmail.com