Massage has many well-known benefits, from less stress and less pain to better sleep. Ask anyone who receives monthly massage about the benefits it has added to their life. A healing modality that goes back literally thousands of years, humankind has been using touch to heal one another across cultures, modalities, and centuries.
One well-researched and scientifically-backed claim is that massage therapy is an effective, complementary treatment for anxiety and depression.
Now, I will first and foremost say that if you are truly suffering from these conditions, speaking with a mental health therapist first is absolutely key. Massage does not treat these conditions in and of itself; it is important to have someone you can talk to and who is trained professionally in how to respond. Massage therapists can hold space for you to process what it is you are going through, but unless that LMT is also an LMHC, providing advice would be out of our scope of practice.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that your body releases when it is faced with a threat. It doesn’t matter if you got an angry text from your boss or you are face-to-face with an angry bear in the woods, your body’s response system doesn’t really know the difference. It releases cortisol and stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight mode. Massage therapy is known to decrease cortisol in your system. According to one study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, cortisol numbers decreased among people receiving massage by an average of 31% after a 60-minute massage.
The body’s nervous system is a complex web of nerves and receptors that all help you navigate the threats and treasures of this world. It’s broken down into two major systems: Your central nervous system, or your brain and spinal cord, and your autonomic nervous system. Within the autonomic nervous system, which is generally responsible for actions your body has no control over, you have your parasympathetic nervous system which helps you rest and digest, and your sympathetic nervous system. You would think the sympathetic nervous system would be the nice guy that has sympathy for your stressful day, right? Not so much. This part of the ANS stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight-or-faint response. So when you are staring down that angry bear in the woods, your sympathetic nervous system is kicking into gear, shutting down your less-essential systems such as digestion, and pumping blood into your muscles so you can run faster than the sucker next to you. Or if you are staring down that angry text from your boss, your sympathetic nervous system is also shutting down your other systems so that you can put all your energy into your response.
Massage therapy affects the nervous system through the peripheral nerves attached to your central nervous system, which subsequently affects the autonomic nervous system. It calms the fight-or-flight-or-faint response while stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, so your body can focus on the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system is responsible.
Remember that fight-or-flight-or-faint response we were just talking about? Those that suffer from chronic anxiety disorders often have an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system response. When someone is constantly in a state of anxiousness, circulation can decrease while muscle tension and heart rate can increase. While massage on anxiety specifically has been difficult to study, in part due to the availability of funding for complementary therapies, the more quantitative results mentioned above can explain how massage affects anxiety. Massage has also been used widely across many cultures for stress and anxiety reduction, and anecdotal evidence is consistent and wide-spread.
In that same study mentioned earlier, it was also found that massage therapy increased serotonin levels, or your body’s “happy chemical,” by as much as 28% in a 60-minute session. Those that suffer from depression often have lower serotonin levels, and many anti-depressants focus on increasing your body’s production of that very chemical.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, clinical trials suggest massage therapy may help relieve depression. While it may not cure the condition in and of itself (remember to get yourself an LMHC), it can relieve many of the symptoms associated with depression, including back pain, low energy levels, poor sleep quality, sluggishness, and joint and muscle aches.
In 2020, we’ve heard the term “self-care” many times over. While small degrees stress is a natural part of life and in some situations, keeps us safe and alive, extreme or constant stress can be detrimental to your health, often leading to disease down the road if not coped with properly. Getting a massage can be a way to treat yourself if you’re not getting it for a specific reason. The 30-, 60-, 90-, or even 120-minutes you book with your therapist is a time and space just for you. A good massage therapist is non-judgmental, open, accepting, and will hold space for you to rest, heal, and cope with life while you are under their hands.