Have you ever been on the massage table and found it challenging to relax or let go? Maybe throughout the session your therapist gently asks you to “let your arm be heavy,” “relax your neck,” or “let me hold the weight of your leg.” Try as you might, you’re left wondering why you can’t let the tension go.
Hands-on practitioners feel this “held stress” in your body as stiffness or a jerky resistance to movement. But for you, this not-letting-go might be hard to feel and, as a result, make it even harder for you to relax.
This is not about structural, tissue-based stiffness, which hands-on work can also help shift. I’m referring here to your ability to sense and relax an at-rest muscle’s residual muscle tension, or tonus. Your muscular tonus is reduced during sleep and is even lower under anesthesia, but much higher under physical tension or stress.1
One of the main factors influencing your ability to relax tonus in your body is body awareness. Here are some key body awareness points to be aware of:
- Refining your body awareness is key to getting lasting results from manual therapy. By being a bodywork client, you’ve already made that important first step toward awareness of your body. It’s as simple as listening to your bodily sensations. After all, if you don’t notice that you’re tense or tight, you can’t relax.
- Your body’s tonus habits can seem slow to shift, but the refinements to body awareness that good hands-on bodywork can bring are a great start. Awareness-based “homework” exercises, such as simply noticing and relaxing tense places in your body, can bridge the on-table massage experience to your everyday life.
- Chronic stress and other sources of sympathetic (fight-or-flight) arousal can cause muscle tightness in several ways. Adrenaline, for example, can directly increase skeletal muscle tension and contractibility.2 The good news for you is that hands-on bodywork has a well-documented ability to reduce stress and its detrimental effects.3
- Guarding due to past or anticipated pain is another common cause of difficulty in relaxing. When we’ve been hurt, we’re naturally more protective of that part of our body. Your therapist can work with you to gently, sensitively, and patiently coax mobility back into those guarded areas; this can provide a kinesthetic “reset” for your nervous system’s largely unconscious guarding reflexes. This takes communication, so don’t ever hesitate to tell your therapist if a different pace, pressure, or approach might help you relax more.
- Finally, there are medical and neurological conditions that can increase muscle tonus. These include stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, dementia, and upper motor neuron diseases. In almost all cases, it can be helpful to invite gentle mobility and awareness to your body, even when there’s an underlying medical condition.
Relaxing is no small thing in the treatment room: it involves trust, awareness, communication, and more. Your therapist has a range of relaxation-inducing options, approaches, and tools to help increase body awareness and reduce tonus; these can make the difference between a good session and a life-changing one.
1. G. Tinguely et al., “Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep with Low Muscle Tone as a Marker of Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Regulation,” BMC Neuroscience 7 (2006): 2; Michael B. Dobson, Anaesthesia at the District Hospital, 2nd ed. (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2000).
2. C. D. Marsden and J. C. Meadows, “The Effect of Adrenaline on the Contraction of Human Muscle,” Journal of Physiology 207, no. 2 (April 1970): 429–48.
3. A. Moraska et al., “Physiological Adjustments to Stress Measures Following Massage Therapy: A Review of the Literature,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 7, no. 4 (2010): 409–18.
Til Luchau is the author of Advanced Myofascial Techniques (Handspring Publishing, 2016), a Certified Advanced Rolfer, and a member of the Advanced-Trainings.com faculty, which offers online learning and in-person seminars throughout the United States and abroad.