Rethinking the Body’s Stress Response

How to Use Bodywork as an Outlet for Psychological Stress

By Erik Dalton, PhD
[Myoskeletal Alignment Techniques ]

Nearly a century ago, Hans Selye began his pioneering research on the human stress response by providing convincing evidence that stress impacts health.1 While many scientists took Selye’s experiments and interpretations at face value, not all agreed with his strict physiological view of the body as a tightly controlled input-output machine, where the degree of stress always resulted in a predictable hormonal response. One of those critics was Rockefeller University researcher Jay Weiss. In a series of laboratory experiments, Weiss delivered mild electric shocks, equivalent to static electricity, to a rat over a period of time, causing it to develop a prolonged stress response, including elevated heart rate, increased cortisol secretion, and eventually an ulcer.2

Meanwhile, in the next room, a different rat was receiving an identical series of shocks at exactly the same time and intensity. But in the case of rat number two, after receiving the shock, he was allowed to run over to a stick of wood and gnaw on it. In an instant, Selye’s firmly regulated biological stress model collapsed. Weiss and his team retested rat number two and found its blood pressure and resting cortisol levels suddenly dropped after chewing on the stick, which acted as a psychological outlet for the rat’s frustration. In many ways, good bodywork can provide a similar vent. As we will see in this column, touch therapy has proven to be an effective outlet for relieving frustration, aggression, and anxiety in this stressed-out country we call home.

All Hands On Deck

We are better at dealing with both acute and chronic stressors when we have outlets for our frustration, like punching a wall (not recommended), taking a run, or receiving massage. The latter can be especially powerful, as our need for touch is primordial. Where most species evolved to survive in specific ecological environments, humans adapted to survive in groups. This goes a long way toward explaining why touch therapy is so important in warding off issues such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

In order to relax, the brain needs to know it has backup—someone it trusts to offer help should the need arise. Our hands are the perfect, unambiguous tool for expressing such vital reassurance. Few things are more psychologically concrete than human touch, and physical contact through touch therapy is one of the simplest, most powerful ways to communicate support. Because the human hand is densely embedded with refined sensory receptors that receive and process proprioceptive information about the things we touch, they are our body’s way of exploring and manipulating the world, and also our primary language of expression and compassion.

One recent study suggests slow affective touch may help modulate the perception of physical pain, thus strengthening social bonding while reducing the stress response.³ So, the burning questions for manual therapists are how do we identify chronically stressed clients, how do we converse with them to make them feel safe, and which hands-on techniques might reduce their allostatic load and calm their hijacked nervous systems?

Observation, Listening, and Compassionate Touch

Here are some physical stress response signs I typically look for when a client enters my workplace:

• Bug-eyed and disoriented

• Clenched jaw

• Irritability

• Jittery

• Rigid or slumped body postures

• Shallow breathing

When dealing with a client exhibiting any of the above symptoms, I make sure they know they have my undivided attention. I always listen calmly and empathetically before proceeding with the hands-on work. However, if they appear too disoriented or distracted, I usually try to get them on the therapy table as quickly as possible, and I may cover them with a lightweight blanket gently tucked to the sides of their body. Once they’re comfortably situated, I begin applying slow, graded-exposure suboccipital and upper cervical oscillating techniques.

 Because the suboccipitals and other upper cervical muscles are innervated with both skeletal and cranial nerves, this is the epicenter for establishing serene body-brain communication. To help down-regulate the client’s hyperexcited fear center (amygdala) and stimulate parasympathetic tone via the vagus nerve, I perform a variety of oscillating and slow affective touch techniques while observing for any positive physical or emotional changes. As the client’s tissues soften and the protective guarding diminishes, the client will often start making intermittent eye contact. At this point, I begin verbally engaging their prefrontal cortex with suggestions that they have come to the right place, and by working as a team, we will help them recover their feelings of strength, safety, and confidence. 


Even in an optimally functioning body, maintaining allostatic balance is a challenge, given the multitude of factors constantly taxing our bodies and creating physical, chemical, and emotional stress. Fortunately, good bodywork can provide a safe, effective outlet for relieving not only physical tension, but also the frustration, aggression, and anxiety associated with the psychological symptoms of stress.


1. Siang Yong Tan and A. Yip, “Hans Selye (1907–1982): Founder of the Stress Theory,” Singapore Medical Journal 59, no. 4 (April 2018): 170–71,

2. J. M. Weiss, “Effects of Coping Responses on Stress,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 65, no. 2 (April 1968): 251–60,

3. Mariana von Mohr, Louise P. Kirsch, and Aikaterini Fotopoulou, “The Soothing Function of Touch: Affective Touch Reduces Feelings of Social Exclusion,” Scientific Reports 7, no. 1 (October 2017): 13516,


Erik Dalton, PhD, is the executive director of the Freedom from Pain Institute. Educated in massage, osteopathy, and Rolfing, he has maintained a practice in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for more than three decades. For more information, visit