Hormones, Massage and Meditation

Tara Buckel
January 22, 2024

That unmistakable feeling of deep heartfelt love physically can make us feel invincible and on top of the world.  The overwhelming emotions of love distract our brain from thinking about anything else.  When we are head over heels in love we are mindful, hyper-aware of sensations we are feeling and much more focused on positivity and intent.  

Our emotions are entwined with our hormones and it has a powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves and what we are capable of, these hormones are chemicals that are at the centre of every bodily function.  In a NY university study, researchers concluded that romantic love causes a surge of activity in brain areas that are rich in dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical. To put this into perspective, similar brain areas light up during the rush of euphoria after taking cocaine!.

Stay safe heart hanging from tree. (c) Therapy Room Annan

During the early stages of love, that distinctive emotional rush will raise our body’s cortisol levels, resulting in a racing heart and butterflies in our stomach. Other chemicals in play are oxytocin, deepening our feelings of attachment, and vasopressin, which has been linked to trust and empathy.  Love is a complicated subject, but it's a great example of the potency of hormones and a strong emotional connection.

Massage is at long last being recognised as much more than a soft tissue treatment.  As soon as your skin's nerve cells feel soothing touch, they signal the brain to release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which boost your mood and give you a natural high. This is one of the reasons why meditation has very similar and equally powerful benefits to deeply soothing massage.  

You don’t even have to be well practised at meditation, breathing in a relaxed state is easy to achieve, especially if you have a therapist to support and guide you to build your confidence. Scientists have shown that activities like meditation and mindfulness have a direct impact on the brain’s production of serotonin levels. It is thought that meditation "bathes" neurons with an array of feel-good chemicals, effectively melting away the stress that leads to low serotonin levels and depression.

It’s well publicised that exercise stimulates our ‘feel-good’ hormones. Responsible for the all-encompassing sense of happiness we sometimes feel, endorphins are a category of neurotransmitters that the body uses as an internal pain killer. A 1995 study tested the neurochemical release of two groups, eleven elite runners and twelve highly trained meditators after running and meditation, respectively. Guess what they found? Both groups’ endorphin levels were greatly elevated. Perhaps even more amazing, meditation's "feel-good effect" scored even higher than running!

Both soothing massage and meditation increases serotonin, the calming chemical and reduces the stress hormone, cortisol levels in the body.  And clearly, too much of this stress hormone is really bad news for our health.  It is what many of us are experiencing right now.  Cortisol, a major age-accelerating hormone is one chemical we need to reduce in times of overwhelm. When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline in abundance. This is normal, a natural product of our evolution and it benefits us in short bursts, but not long term.  In low, regular doses it is detrimental and can tear your body down, destroying healthy muscle and bone, blocking the creation of good hormones, eventually leading to anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, brain fog, insomnia, inflammation, the list goes on and on.

Be aware that bodywork therapy that induces discomfort, or damage such as bruising, for example to the tissues, will stimulate the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline causing a low-level release of the fight/flight reaction.

It may give a short term high with a ‘pain-reducing’ distraction effect, remember, these 'stress‘ hormones are great for protecting us from a life or death crisis but it’s worth focusing on therapies that avoid the low-level release of stress hormones if we want to bring balance & wellness and encourage our nervous system away from moderate or high alert.  

Pain-free, soothing touch (to stimulate those blissful feel-good hormones) is much more potent and effective due to our nervous systems feel-good emotional response and it has an incredible healing impact on both our body and our brain.  Emotional wellness is often forgotten in massage disciplines, and physical pain is felt even acutely when we are emotionally unaligned.  A huge part of benefitting from therapies is in the permission for self-care and awareness.  

When our nervous system is soothed, those stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline begin to decrease and the overall effect is one of euphoria and bliss. The effect reduces the intensity of pain in our body by naturally blocking pain signals produced by the nervous system.   If we feel uneasy, in pain or tense, avoiding seeking the contrast of our cortisol and adrenaline levels being spiked and then lowered will really give those beautiful feel-good hormones the opportunity to work their magic.

The quote "Massage done well is quite simply an explosion of sensation" by Gerry Pyves. the creator of NO HANDS massage puts it perfectly.  So regarding the effect on your muscles, the power of massage is how it impacts your nervous system.  Your muscles feeling amazing post-treatment is just one of the benefits.

 The response by our nervous system explains why meditation has very similar benefits both mentally and physically to deeply soothing massage.  In these times when we are unable to connect with friends and family and meet our therapist for massage, we need to find other ways to keep ourselves connected and engaged.  A meditation app might work for you, or you may be needing to engage one to one with a therapist, or within a group session.  It’s important not to feel alone right now and to continue to find time to take care of yourself.

Tara Buckel
Therapist since 1999. Specialising in TraumaTherapy and Pain Management
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