Autonomic Flexibility – Matthew Howe Discusses Holistic Massage and Bodywork

Matthew Howe Touch Education Teaching Craniosacral in Costa Rica

Autonomic Flexibility – Matthew Howe Discusses Holistic Massage and Bodywork

Autonomic Flexibility

An Axiomatic Approach

Matthew Howe, H.B.

I’ve engaged many different massage and bodywork approaches with clients as the years have gone by. It didn’t take long before a few themes kept coming up. There were consistent similarities between clients and client populations. It didn’t matter where the clients came from. It didn’t matter what the goal of the session was. The threads are there regardless of where I work or who I am working with. The slip and falls. The car accidents. The worker’s comp cases while at the Chiropractor’s office. The people on vacation. The people escaping home on an Orlando staycation. The conventioneers by the droves during my long run at Orlando’s best resort spas. The triathletes, professional and recreational. The everyday people that need help to sleep or deal with issues. The moms, dads, business owners, and employees in my practice.

I strove to be of benefit to the communities I served. I am honored to have been able to help lots of clients, students, and humans in general. All the while taking information about anatomy, physiology, or pathology and growing my knowledge. Each interaction became a lesson that harmonized with my touch moving towards more in-depth understanding.

The cultivation of those experiences lead to Touch Education’s axioms. Years of sharing the axioms with students and clients demonstrated to me there is a simple difference between understanding and application. Touch education’s goals are to nourish each student. Regardless of age or experience, our information can further skillsets. The axioms are informationally technical and situationally tactical. Autonomic Flexibility is one that displays my approach.

Touch Education Axiom #3: Autonomic Flexibility – a self-correcting homeostatic resiliency of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is understood as “fight or flight.” I believe there is a more complete picture of our acute stress responses. There are also the options of freeze, fool, and faint. Let’s break it down like this: A stimulus causes a stress response: loud noise (fireworks exploding, gunshot) or invasive smell (cologne, spent airbag powder)

  • Fight: Stimulus-> reaction = I’m going to do something about it, get your dander up
  • Flight: Stimulus-> reaction = I am out of here/run!
  • Freeze: Stimulus-> reaction = Ah-er-ah, cannot move/deer in headlights
  • Fool: Stimulus-> reaction = It’s no big deal / we can fool them. Think an opossum playing dead or nervous laughing.
  • Faint: Stimulus-> reaction = or “eeek” —”thump”. Think fainting goats/something overwhelming.

These are generic examples, but they illustrate a range of responses to stimuli that go beyond fight or  light. The different responses impact our clients in any number of ways. Traumatic stimuli often have a more severe impact.

The basic stress response is resistance in the tissues. Resistance can be illustrated as soreness after an accident. Resistance can resolve, with attention and action. When resistance is ignored, numbed, or avoided, it may become a more severe issue. It can often gain traction in the body leading to conditions like musculoskeletal restrictions, headaches, low back pain, anxiety, or depression. Traumatic stimuli may have more significant responses by the body’s tissues.

The parasympathetic side is referred to as ‘rest and digest,’ but I see it incomplete still. The additional items of ‘repair and rebuild’ are essential. Our body needs down time for self-corrective maintenance. Humans respond to stressful stimuli differently, each bounce back differently.

Think about how you would respond to aggressive confrontation, long exposure to hot sun, insects flying around your ears, or alarming sounds. Everyone’s stress response would be different. Massage and bodywork with an autonomic focus help to increase resiliency. Resiliency the body needs to begin its healing sequences. Stressed out people don’t heal well.

Parasympathetic activity means:

  • Rest: good sleep, better sleep, or being able to slow down while awake
  • Digest: blood and resources are diverted back to the GI tract so that they can do their job. The stomach noises you hear during massage, parasympathetic applause from your client!
  • Repair: the body is a self-correcting homeostatic healing machine. Resources previously used for protection get used for healing.
  • Rebuild: rebuilding takes place so that we can be stronger. Professional athletes understand that recovery and positive adaptation are pivotal.

However, each client is different. Our system underscores situational awareness, the power of presence in the therapeutic interaction, and reverence for the treatment space so that all can engage in the  content. Understanding the role of Autonomic Flexibility is one part. Knowing the what to do is another. What soft skills facilitate listening to your client, their body, and for how their body heals. The techniques that I teach, the approaches I take, the examples I give, the stories I tell, are all part of the fabric that weaves a more three-dimensional intelligence. The aim is a global understanding of the body beyond the musculoskeletal system. Engaging approaches like light-touch or deep pressure can increase autonomic flexibility. Our adaptive techniques monitor tissue as it fosters a greater potential for change. Change that brings healing, recovery, and better performance.

Article originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Massage Message Magazine by FSMTA

Matthew Howe teaches Craniosacral Therapy and Bodywork for PTSD at the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy. Click here to see our continuing education offerings.

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Matthew Howe

Matthew Howe has been an active participant in the massage and bodywork field since graduating from the Central Florida School of Massage Therapy in 2000. Logging over 10,000 massages spread across spa, chiropractic, and private practice he knows the labor of love that is massage therapy. With encouragement from friends and mentors, he officially launched Touch Education, LLC in 2003. Matthew took experiences from his practice and cultivated classes that balanced the art and science of touch. Using 6 simple principles of the body he breaks down the complex and shows therapists how to facilitate change across the spectrum from pathology and physiology to wellness. Matthew’s education is heavily influenced with the spectrum of CranioSacral Therapy, both mechanical and dynamic. He keeps rooted by teaching at his alma mater as well as the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy. He nurtures learning from others with a quest to connect information to advance the field of massage and bodywork.