We’re in…the New Year. Doesn’t feel new; feels like my regular comfortable clothing with a few stitches missing in the seam or a partly loose hem. But I hope it is new for you, though I rather suspect it will not remain that way. It will toss up a few surprises…the old things coming around again with new twists. Aaaaah, let’s be positive about that. It will toss up old things presenting new opportunities to be done better/differently. Ah-ha, that sounds more like it. So here I go, with an old issue – stress. Not trying for a new twist, but if such emerges that would be nice. The thoracolumbar influence of the sympathetic nervous system ensures that the heart rate slows down, the uptake of oxygen is reduced, digestion goes on hold, etc. just so that we could arrive at survival mode – fight or flight – in the shortest period of time because there is a perceived threat. This is made possible thanks to the endocrine system being permitted to dump a range of hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones take over the reins and dictate how the body should now function, resulting in mutiny on board a partially paralyzed body.
Whichever hormone heads the mutiny gives instructions for blood to be sent to the large muscle groups so that they can efficiently execute the necessary response if the threat materializes. With the same speed, instructions are given for the extremities to be deprived of blood in case they end up dismembered by the threat so that the body won’t lose much blood. So the person with the mutiny on board turns pale. Cold sweat is also activated. In primordial times, initial escape from a predator did not mean we were safe, because we produced hot sweat which radiated heat/smell and allowed the predator to detect us in our hideout and pounce on us. But cold sweat allows us to channel high levels of stress without being detected through heat/smell. Stress also causes us become hyper-vigilant of our environment, and sensitive to what people say so that it is easy to misinterpret what is said. This and more quietly happens inside of us due to our stressful lifestyles. We are almost always experiencing arousal…adrenaline arousal. The primordial version of ourselves utilized adrenaline rush for short hectic activities, but we have successfully ‘advanced’ to the point where we have made it an everyday, almost all-day activity. We need a daily exercise routine to shake off some of the adrenaline. Look at the animals. If they are chased by a predator and are able to make good their escape, when they are in a safe place they shake themselves to release the excess energy. Then they are back to grazing calmly as if the chase did not occur. Let’s add a ‘shake’ to our to-do list for this year.
The job stress, noise pollution, broken relationship, etc. keep our fight or flight response constantly activated. It can be argued that these stimuli are not bombarding us every minute. They don’t need to. Being chemical messengers, once the hormones are released into the bloodstream they continue to execute their function even after the noise has stopped or the relationship is fixed. They have to be worked out of the system. If we were to think of someone suddenly appearing in front of us in the dark, causing us to be afraid, then the lights are turned on and we see it is a loved one and that we have no need to be fearful, does that immediately stop the rush/fear we felt? Does it stop us from shaking involuntarily? No. The chemicals will need a few minutes at least to work themselves out of our system. Meanwhile we might strike out at our loved one physically or verbally…a means of shaking off the hormones.
Okay. I have been saying fight or flight, but that is not the response every time there is a threat. Sometimes we freeze. Back in the past (that most of us can’t recall or identify with) when we were out in the wild, we ran like hell from predators when we needed to, but that was not possible for the infants among us, so they froze. It was the perfect involuntary way to play dead as many animals don’t seem to care for a dead prey. So the predator would have approached the child, sniffed around a bit, then moved on, and the parent who was able to run for shelter could then make a beeline and retrieve the child. Didn’t always work, but you get my drift. Freezing is more automatic for children because their limbs cannot move as quickly as ours. But most of us never outgrow the ability to freeze. And while it still happens to us, it is not always noticeable. For instance, office stress from Monday to Thursday might be manageable, but on Friday morning, for reasons we can’t explain, the first word out of the boss’s mouth causes us to snap. It’s not a snap where we stump out of the office, but we stand right there listening, only we are not hearing. Something encases us and shuts us down. We could feel the freeze frame around us and the gradual departure of energy from our body. And for the rest of the day we move around the office in zombie mode.
Of course there is the more dramatic freezing like when we are in the middle of the road and see a car headed straight at us, but cannot find our legs to move out of the way. While this is happening we are shifted into that highly sensitive state where we are looking for some ‘eye of a needle’ to slip through by magic so that we are not hit. This is not a case in which the car is a predator that will come close to us and think that we are dead and walk away, but our wired responses function as if it is such. Still immobile, we gauge that the car is close enough and is coming in for the kill. And we slip through the ‘eye of the needle’ and find ourselves on the ‘other side.’ If the ‘other side’ turns out to be the curb that a wannabe martyr enthusiastically pushed us to because they realized our plight, then we get to gasp at the realization that we were saved by the skin of our teeth. And after the fact, we continue to shake uncontrollably as our body work off the adrenaline. When the feelings of the drama totally subside, we could consider suing the good samaritan for damages for the broken arm and leg we suffered in the fall, for had they left us in the middle of the road the car might have stopped and left us unscathed.
Stress scenario 1: Imagine the man whose job it is to protect our borders who was called out in the dead of night with his team to intercept a drug transaction. The culprits are detained and they are awaiting the arrival of the Police. But the Police has other commitments and the few who could be pulled off the current engagement to attend to matters at the scene are debating seniority among themselves, so they take forever to decide who should show up. When they arrive it is after 10 a.m. and they want a detailed report of what transpired all night to the present moment. The night guys, having relaxed their guard now that the Police has arrive, now have to hastily get back in the game because one of the detainees found a way to wiggle free and has gotten into a vehicle and sped off. A high speed chase ensues to get him back. By the time this is all over it is afternoon and the man arrives home still bursting with adrenaline from the escapade of the past hours. His idea of dissipating the excess energy is sex. The wife who was worried sick is now relieved that her husband was not killed in the cross fire that was part of the drama.
But while she is relieved, she is tired…drained. She is constantly in this state because she has become a chronic worrier who keeps waiting something to go terribly wrong with him, and the family by extension. (For the record: Worry is an abuse of our imagination). Because her case is chronic, she cannot ‘snap’ out of it, and it is giving her countless headaches while he whines about her worrying over ‘nothing.’ So they argue again, instead of having sex, about why he doesn’t leave his job and why she can’t be so glad that he is back that she makes love to him like it’s the last day of their lives. Then the children become anxious hearing them shouting at each other highlighting each other’s faults and swearing about a million and one things because it is difficult to stay on the same subject in a heated argument. So it veers off to who is right and who is wrong, and who does not need who, and who should have never married who, and whose friends or parents are influencing who. And the stress takes over the family.
Having gone through that cycle often enough, he eventually opts for liming with the ‘boys’ and drinking instead of going home after one of their intrigues. His accomplishments on the job boost his testosterone, but on the home front his efforts are not always recognized and he does not feel like much of a man sometimes. For that matter, he has had to give her a good shaking on many occasions because he would be talking to her and stress would have her so numb (freeze) that she would not respond. So he would have to shake a response out of her. On the other extreme, she would suddenly become a genius at talking the wrong things which would trigger the flexor and extensor muscles in his arms and he’d find himself hitting her (fight) to get her to shut up. To avoid shaking or hitting her he chooses to leave the house (flight) and go get some booze. He could really use a massage, not because he cares for its many benefits, but rather in a similar sense of using alcohol; to shut out the unpleasant issues of his life. So he pays his money and plays the alpha male in the therapy room dictating that his ‘needs’ to be met first and the remaining time could be spent actually receiving a massage.
His wife could use a massage too, but for all the encouragement she has gotten to do so she has not. But now she is fed up and could only see that he does not care, and that the relationship is turning her into an old woman while he is out doing what he wants. So the money she has been saving to buy him a special gift is splurged on fixing her hair, doing her nails, getting a facial and a bikini wax, buying shoes and an outfit, and getting a massage…finally a massage…with the therapist’s ears bending with her many complaints about how the marriage is stressing her out. So we have to market massage as a crisis intervention method, persuading people that it can alleviate their physical and emotional pain and hope that they are vexed enough with their situations to pay attention to us and book a massage. How does a massage business thrive on vex money?
Stress scenario 2: We can also imagine the client who arrives here for the Carnival experience and expects to have fun from start to finish. He calls up a massage service and enquires about the types of ‘girls’ available so that he could choose the one he anticipates would best fulfill his expectations. Having endured the stress of sitting for many hours on the long journey here, as well as the very long line at the airport where only one Customs Officer was on duty, he now has added stress calling several places because the first one said that their ‘girls’ don’t go out, and the other said that a male usually accompanies the ‘girl’ and he stays in the room during the massage, and the other called a price that he deemed too exorbitant for the service, and the other said he has to book the appointment a day in advance.
When he does find a place that could help, he is told that no ‘girls’ are in their employ, only professional massage therapists. He agrees to have one. When she arrives she is all cordial and fails to get undress and hop into bed with him. He is disturbed about this for while he had agreed to a massage, where he came from prostitution is legal and formalities on the telephone about massage are a necessary façade, but when the therapist arrives, negotiating sexual favours is the norm. In his haste to come for Carnival he forgot to check to see if prostitution is legal here. It’s totally illegal, which is why there is no real need for a license to practice. We only need to read and understand the Sexual Offences Act – Chapter 11:28. A therapist choosing to be a sex worker (momentarily) can serve five years if caught soliciting sex, and the client who plans to fly out within a few days could find themselves with a stiffer sentence of fifteen years for obtaining the service. In addition, using the therapy room as a brothel automatically makes it subject to occasional Police raid. But bribes could quickly dissolve any possibility of public embarrassment or legal tension. Herein lies the need for code of ethics and the decency to enact it.
Stress scenario 3: The therapist is under stress too. Though the environment appears safe she is unaware of the client’s history of massage intrigues and is experiencing adrenaline arousal because his line of questioning gives her the impression that she might have to make a hasty escape should things escalate to him physically trying to coerce her. So she is doing the massage in heightened awareness waiting to scoot to the door. But there is no guarantee she’ll get to the door. She might freeze. Then what? File rape charges? What if the guy says his stress level was so high that it activated a condition for which the medication was left at the airport because it was more than the allowed amount of fluid he could carry on board, and he was hoping that the massage would calm but instead it provided unexpected stimulus and he lost control? The body we occupy, or call our own, has a life of its own and can often surprise or embarrass us with spontaneous acts of depersonalization – the feeling of not being in control of our actions. So he could hire a cute lawyer who will argue a strong case on his behalf, and to back up his argument the lawyer could have a cute Doctor testify that there were extraordinary amounts of serotonin in his blood which provoked hallucinations leading to his sexual aggression.
Professional bodies already know that therapy is not always black and white and kept neatly between the lines, which why they set guidelines to assist us in maintaining some semblance of boundaries. The thing is, where the shoreline in when the tide is in, is not where it is when the tide is out, leaving much room for erring on the wrong side. And, guidelines cannot stop a client and therapist from ‘hitting it off’ and deciding that they are two consenting adults and will do as seem fitting in their eyes. And while the inclusion of extra-therapy activities might be closer to the norm than we care to admit, it is hoped that therapists remember that in so doing they are negating their responsibility of duty of care to the client. These are actually moments of vulnerability being experienced by the client of which the therapist is taking advantage. Exploitation.
Stress is stress, and while it can stimulate us to study harder for an exam, or help us cope generally, it can also disrupt our daily life, in which case an invitation to de-stress together has its attraction. Sweet dreams are made of this, Who am I to disagree, I travel the world and the seven seas, Everybody’s looking for something. Some of them want to use you, Some of them want to get used by you, Some of them want to abuse you, Some of them want to be abused. Hence the therapist’s lawyer could argue that the client wanted to be taken advantage of. And while I am in no position to say who should do what, I will suggest that we endeavour to act as responsibly as possible in ‘taking advantage’ of clients so that we do not undermine the work that other therapists are doing to maintain the dignity of the profession.
So these wonderful attributes we have – fight, flight, freeze – have been abused over time and seldom function appropriately in the prevailing circumstance. Here we can agree that massage is very useful in deliberately creating tranquil moments between the stressful periods. If we don’t pull the reins on stress, then inevitably we end up with anxiety disorders and/or a series of physical ailments masquerading as one thing today and another tomorrow. Lifestyle diseases. As therapists we have reasons to be stressed, so we need massages too. If it is not economical for us to pay for massages, then we should actively seek exchange sessions with each other, or maintain a routine of relaxing exercises, or form a tea-sipping habit. Something, just break the cycle. And when we are calm enough hopefully we can understand that it is reasonable for a client to come into therapy expecting a sexual experience, as ideally, sex promptly shakes off the excess adrenaline. The longevity of our practice depends on our ability to do therapy, talk therapy if necessary, to get our clients to stop fidgeting long enough for the massage to bring about the desired balance.
Happy New Year to all.