For the last year, I’ve gotten an hour-long massage at least once per month. Massage is a hard thing not to love for its own sake, but what’s been interesting is to understand the science behind why massage works. It’s ultimately a process that requires the assistance of outside forces – something or someone presses on your body to enact some change. “Deep tissue” massage is the type of massage I am talking about, which does not mean massage that involves lots of manual strength, but any massage that focuses on affecting structural changes in the body.
One of the leading theories behind massage and why it works involves the formation of fascia, or connective tissue, throughout the body in response to a process called fibrosis. The patterns of movement and stationary positioning we take on, to whatever extent they deviate from your standard design, encourage the formation of this tissue throughout the body to prop up these alternate poses. You can imagine your muscular tissue and cells working constantly at building bridges and trusses throughout your body at any point in time with the intention of enabling the pose to be held and to take stress off the more actively strained muscles.
The challenge with fascia formation is that these bridges aren’t meant to be permanent. They are going to be much more brittle and will adapt the musculoskeletal system in ways not recommended by the manufacturer. Fibrosis is actually behind many well-known permanent ailments of tissue replacement – scarring, cirrhosis, and Crohn’s disease are all examples of fibrosis taken to the extreme. In each of these cases, death or permanent effects result from a natural process of the body (tissue formation and repair) that gets taken to the extreme without being checked. Deep tissue massage is an outside input to assist in the destruction and collapse of these structures to allow the rest of the body’s structure to build and heal in the right direction, avoiding more permanent pains and cramps due to malformed muscle and tissue buildup.
I like to think about the formation of habits as happening within a similar process needing a similar remedy. A normal human brain will have a natural, healthy course of being that we can generally recognize. Happiness, a kind demeanor, and an ability to focus are all examples of observed effects of a brain operating as any designer or user would encourage it.
It’s the unnatural poses, or trains of thought and habit, that can disrupt the normal operation of a healthy brain through the creation of mental bridges into unhealthy territory. Personal examples for me would be the frequent checking of email and social networks throughout the day. Email responsiveness happens to be a core part of my job, but checking Twitter? While there’s value there the process has manifested a kind of fibrosis that would be difficult to deny of its negative daily effects. The distraction started as a prop against whatever stressful topics I wanted to turn away from and has grown into something of a time-suck and an activity that replaces valuable thought and action time that could be better spent focused on the topics at hand at work.
I’d argue that addiction is a type of extreme fibrosis of the brain. As fascia is built up in the muscles to support a poor structure, an unhealthy drug habit is built up as a replacement for healthier ones. Once at this point, AA’s 12 Step Program is the psychological equivalent to a deep tissue massage. And for less severe habitual build-ups, a check-in with a therapist could be the analogy to regular massages for the healthy re-shaping of mental processes.
Technology of all kinds creates a kind of habitual fibrosis, as well. My dad’s driven his motorhome through 47 states over the last decade, navigating highway and local roads alike with the assistance of his GPS. This tool has saved him a ton of hassle from figuring out routes between cities and the best path to a local restaurant, but has created a kind of dangerous dependence. Anytime a resident tries to give him directions to somewhere they’re quickly stopped and asked if they’ve got the address or cross street, instead. The ubiquity of the GPS and mapping devices frees us from having to learn how to get from Austin to Marfa but displaces the local or tacit knowledge we might hope to acquire during a passing visit.
Stoicism is a kind of active therapy against all kinds of bad mental habit formation. The active caution against the dependence (aka “mental bridge building”) on material things smooths the formation of habit towards a reliance on things you’d expect to be longer lasting and unbreakable by external events. Your reputation, countenance, and rational self become personal bridges that last because of their very nature as intrinsic properties not necessarily dependent on externalities.
For everything else, there’s probably a body massage for that. My own takeaways from the fascia and habit analogy is to recognize when it’s occurring and what effective antidotes could be. Tissue buildup and habit formation generally depend on the external environment for their formation, and may require external stimulus to be broken down once again. So, be mindful and pick the massage therapist or mental therapist, in whatever form, that’s going to work for you.