by Nema Nyar, LMT
ou feel the sun caressing your face, and a salty breeze tousles your hair. You breathe deeply as waves of cool water refresh your hot feet, pulling sand through your toes . . . but then the phone rings. The daydream’s over—your desk is strewn with unfinished projects, and your stress level is through the roof. Even when your workday is done, you’re still stressed, because the stressors are ongoing, and we usually continue thinking about them long after the stressful event is over. While unwinding at the beach may not fit your schedule right now, a professional foot reflexology session may be just what you need to manage your stress in as little as 30 minutes.
When I give a foot reflexology treatment, I use alternating pressure to stimulate “reflexes.” These reflexes are not the same as the reflexes the doctor tests for when he hits your knee; rather, they are areas on our feet that relate to our organs and other structures in the body. For example, when I apply pressure to the arch of the foot, I am affecting the kidneys. If you look at a reflexology map, you will notice that the whole body is mirrored in the feet: the reflexes associated with the head, eyes, and ears are located in the toes; the abdominal organs are found midsole; and the pelvis is associated with the heel of the foot.
The feet are loaded with more nerves per square inch than any other part of the body.
Clients receiving foot reflexology experience profound relaxation—a state between waking and sleeping. Since the feet are loaded with more nerves per square inch than any other part of the body, the soothing pressure a reflexologist applies to the feet calms the nervous system, promoting deep relaxation. If my clients have a particular issue in their body, I will work on the corresponding reflex areas on their feet. Stimulating reflexes promotes blood flow: In a small, randomized control trial, researchers found that foot reflexology applied to the kidney reflex enhanced blood flow to the kidney. Increased blood flow to any area saturates it with oxygen and healing nutrients, removes wastes, and thereby improves function. Thus my clients find reflexology not only relaxing, but healing as well.
How does foot reflexology calm the nervous system? Research shows that stimulating foot reflex points has a direct effect on the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, traveling from the cranium to the belly. It governs the parasympathetic response in the body—our “rest and digest” mode. The parasympathetic nervous system slows heart rate, facilitates digestion, and promotes relaxation. It counters the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response we experience when bombarded with stressful situations. Reflexology, like massage or deep breathing, engages the parasympathetic response, enabling us to respond to stressors with more serenity.
Research has also found that reflexology stimulates activity in the “default mode network,” a part of the brain that lights up when the body and mind are at rest. Reflexology targets a portion of this network that serves as a hub integrating input from diverse parts of the brain. Scientists believe that communication facilitated in this part of the brain helps us adapt to a changing environment, sense internal signals such as a change in heart rate or a feeling of self-consciousness, and process emotionally relevant information. Interestingly, scientists also believe that this portion of the default mode network works with other areas of the brain to help us balance outwardly focused attention with inwardly focused attention.
The ability to adapt to a changing environment is essential to coping with the stressful demands of a complex life. Also, the ability to stay connected with what is going on inside us in a stressful moment helps us monitor our stress response, such as elevated heart rate or shallow breathing, as well as gauge our feelings about a situation. With a little practice, awareness of these stress markers can prompt us to take a break or breathe more deeply, helping us to stay calmer in the face of stress.
Another research study also suggests that foot reflexology helps us cope with stress. The study subjected a group of healthy individuals to an initial round of mental stress while measuring their blood pressure and heart rate. After a 20-minute reflexology session, participants experienced another round of mental stress and responded with significant drops in blood pressure compared to their baseline readings. Interestingly, the control group who simply had their feet held also experienced some improvement in their stress response.
The above studies suggest that reflexology can increase access to our “rest and digest” mode by activating the parasympathetic mechanisms in the brain and nervous system. Greater ability to toggle between outer and inner awareness may help us remain mindful amid challenging situations, and recover more quickly once the stressful situations are over.
Treat Your Feet
Is it time for you to step off the treadmill of stress? If so, treat yourself to a session with a certified reflexologist, or try one of these easy and effective DIYs:
- Massage your own feet. This is my go-to therapy when I am feeling pulled in many directions. It helps me ground myself, allowing me to catch my breath.
- Exchange foot rubs with your best bud!
- Roll a golf ball under your feet, focusing on the sore spots. This is easy to do at your desk during a relaxation break.
- Walk barefoot: Random sticks and stones will stimulate foot reflexes. Morning walks in dewy grass can be a real treat!
- For $30 you can add bumpy insoles to your current shoes and get massaged all day long.
Practices like these help us traverse the stressful landscape of our lives more gracefully. When a day at the beach is too far off, reflexology is a great way to find tranquility even on your busiest day. We would love to hear about your favorite ways to relax on busy days! Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Additional reading: Reflexology may help you heal from physical ailments as well. To view related research, click here.
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Walk on the beach by Zack Minor @Unsplash.com