Anxiety and depression are common yet serious disorders. Massage therapy may help.
An estimated 18% of adult Americans suffer from some type of anxiety disorder and approximately 10% suffer from some type of depression. These disorders may coexist and are often untreated. Depression and anxiety can interfere in social functioning and lead to increased risk of unemployment, illness, and even death. They can play an aggravating role in other health conditions and render an individual more vulnerable to disease. While anxiety and depression can often be treated successfully with medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of both, these options are not always sufficient, desirable, or available. Some individuals may be unable or unwilling to take medications because of health conditions, drug interactions, personal beliefs, or unpleasant side effects.
Psychotherapy is not available in all communities and may be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Social stigma may prevent some individuals from seeking treatment. Some individuals just don’t respond well to conventional therapies. Clearly, an easily accessible treatment devoid of bothersome side effects could be helpful.
Research has shown that massage therapy can have a beneficial effect on both anxiety and depression.
Early research at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School demonstrated that 30 minutes of daily massage therapy to hospitalized depressed adolescents over a 5 day period brought about an improvement in mood and behavior. Since then, many studies have documented that massage therapy can have a beneficial effect on depression and anxiety. In fact, it is one of the most consistently documented results of massage.
Anxiety can be divided into two general classes: state anxiety and trait anxiety. State anxiety is a temporary reaction to a stressful situation. Trait anxiety is an ongoing, chronic state of anxiety. There are many specific anxiety disorders, such as panic attack disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, etc. Massage therapy has been shown to have at least mild benefit for both state and trait anxiety, and even a single session of massage may help to alleviate the symptoms of state anxiety. However, a series of massage sessions has been found to offer the most benefit and seems to be particularly helpful for trait anxiety disorders.
How does massage therapy work?
We don’t exactly know how massage works to alleviate depression and anxiety. For many years, it was thought that massage reduced the stress hormone cortisol and this brought about the improvement. However, more recent research has shown that massage does not reduce cortisol in the way in which we thought. No one is exactly sure how massage effects change. Some hypotheses exist but do not have sufficient data to support them. Specific effects on the nervous system, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc., are still under investigation. We know that humans are biologically wired to respond to touch. Perhaps it is the combined effect of focused, caring attention and tactile stimulation, or perhaps the muscular relaxation signals the brain to shift to a more calm state. Fortunately, we do not need to understand precisely how this change comes about in order to benefit from it. As we learn more over time, it may help us understand how to optimize massage therapy’s effects and help massage gain acceptance as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
Christopher Moyer, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has made significant contributions to the field of massage therapy research. His paper, Affective Massage Therapy, published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, describes some of the history of massage therapy research and, in particular, examines the research on massage and anxiety and depression. Moyer was co-editor of the book Massage Therapy, Integrating Research and Practice and wrote the chapter on anxiety and depression. In the “recommendations” section of the chapter, Moyer states:
Massage therapists can be confident that MT has been scientifically demonstrated to reduce anxiety and depression, and that the benefits are substantial. Indeed, there are probably no other effects in MT research that have been as consistently demonstrated as these mental health benefits.
Moyer takes care to point out that, like any treatment, individual responses will vary and massage therapy will not work the same for everyone. We still do not know the optimal amount and pattern of treatments to get the greatest effect.
Depression and anxiety can be very serious and massage therapy should not be a replacement for proper medical attention when it is needed. Clients and therapists alike should recognize its limitations. However, one of the advantages of massage therapy is the ease of access. No prescription is needed and one does not typically need to wait weeks or months for an appointment. Gentle massage should have no detrimental side effects and social stigma is generally absent. Mild benefit is often felt immediately and even greater benefit can come from a series of sessions. All these factors may make it an appealing resource for the person living with anxiety or depression.
Clients suffering from anxiety or depression should inform their massage therapist so they can treat appropriately. Professional massage therapists are expected to respect client confidentiality. Clients do not need to be embarrassed and do not need to reveal details which they might prefer to keep private.
Massage therapists should familiarize themselves with common mental health problems, assess anxiety and depression during intake, and inform clients who admit to anxiety or depression that massage therapy may help.
Living with anxiety and depression is a painful and distressing experience. Proper treatment is important. Massage therapy can be of benefit. Please, if you know someone who is suffering from anxiety and depression, urge them to get the care they need so that they can go on to live a more successful and productive life.