“The skin is no more separated from the brain than the surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous media…the brain is a single functional unit from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.
You can scrub and slather the skin with a myriad of products but, all of those serums, oils, and creams won’t address your furrowed brow, clenched jaw, scrunched forehead, and shoulders creeping up to your ears. Whether with your hands or a tool, massage is where the magic happens! What do you do if you want to cultivate a garden? You prepare the soil by softening the ground, removing rocks so the roots have space to grow, and you water and fertilize the plant to provide nutrition. Massage ‘tills’ the soft tissue to enhance the environment for your skin to function well. It dissolves muscle tension, re-patterns the structure, diminishes stress that accelerates the aging process, and provides an opportunity for deep relaxation. Why do you look refreshed (or as beauty culture refers to it, “youthful”) after a facial? Because your skin is not only dewy from being hydrated and moisturized but also most importantly, you allowed your body to REST.
The nervous system and skin are intrinsically linked as its the first to establish contact with the environment. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system; sympathetic and parasympathetic which have opposite but complementary roles. The sympathetic portion (SNS) “fight or flight”, puts your body on alert when faced with danger. Your blood is shunted towards your extremities, your heart rate increases, and pupils dilate so you can assess the situation and have enough energy to react accordingly. The parasympathetic portion (PSNS) “rest and digest” controls your body’s systems during periods of rest and calms the body down after a SNS response. Blood returns to your organs, heart rate slows, and blood pressure lowers. Of course we want these two systems to work synergistically but chronic stress can keep us in the sympathetic state for too long, resulting in elevated levels of the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol. Cortisol, when at proper levels, is fantastic for regulating metabolism, sugar levels, and blood pressure, suppressing inflammation, and controlling the sleep-wake cycle; however, excessive levels produce the opposite effect resulting in high blood sugar, inflammation, weakened immune system, and disturbed sleep. All of these can contribute to changes in the skin such as dryness, dullness, sensitivity, puffiness, and breakouts. How else does stress affect our skin? Muscle tension.
What happens when muscles have tension? Movement is restricted. Massage releases restrictions that impede the movement of blood and lymph through the muscles and fascia, bringing nutrients and oxygen to the tissues and restoring fluidity. Muscle tension can also contribute to postural and facial imbalances. Consider the frontalis muscle; its location is on the forehead yet, through fascia, is connected to the occipitals muscle on the back of the skull. It also feeds into the procerus and corrugator muscles to lift the brow. The platysma spans the front of the neck, yet arises from fascia of the pectorals and deltoid muscles. It has fibers that insert on the jaw as well as into the cheek area, lower lip, modiolus, and obicularis oris. Do you see the connection? Tension in any of these origins and insertions can have a direct affect on our facial structures, causing pulling or sagging.
Emotions also play a role in facial tension and common skin issues. Eczema, rosacea, and acne are often triggered by stress and to make matters worse, the flare up of these conditions perpetuates a cycle of anxiety and stress. In addition, our face muscles are hardwired to convey our emotions as a form of communication. Think about how stress in the form of anger, frustration, or fear manifests in the face. In the first few seconds of emotional turmoil, research shows that muscles around the jaw, mouth, and eyes tighten! The masseter and temporalis muscles, for example, close the jaw. When under stress some of us tighten and clench this area resulting in jaw pain and headaches from restricted blood flow to the scalp.
Breath work is another factor that has a positive effect on the skin because it immediately puts the brake on stress. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing, particularly with a longer exhalation, puts us into a parasympathetic state. When our body is at rest, it repairs itself. Steady, controlled breathing regulates the nervous system, slows our heart rate, changes blood pressure, and elicits the relaxation response.
And we can’t forgot about the actual act of touch! Touching the skin conveys messages to your brain via mechanoreceptors which in addition to touch, respond to pressure, vibration, and sound. These sensory signals reach the brain where it responds to the stimuli and then processes the emotional and social context of the stimuli. During massage, endorphins, like the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, and oxytocin, are released into the bloodstream. These ‘feel good’ hormones promote happiness, joy, and pleasure while reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
Massage has been proven to lower stress levels and anxiety, diminish tension, relieve pain, spur collagen production, reduce fluid accumulation, and provide relaxation. These attributes cannot be brushed under the rug while some ‘ hope in a jar’ takes center stage. After all, the majority of those products don’t even make it past the epidermis whereas soft tissue manipulation creates a cascading affect upon the integumentary, skeletal, nervous, lymphatic, and circulatory systems which results in (assumed) better functioning skin.
If your esthetician is skipping the massage during your facial it may be time to find someone else. If you are an esthetician who dismisses face massage as “fluff” while machines and products steal your focus, I encourage you to take a face massage class to understand and experience the profound changes that can occur. If you are a massage therapist who skips the face (even though you’re right there at the neck and scalp!), I suggest learning face massage techniques to take your session to the next level.