Reducing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression can be as Easy as Going For a Massage

Quite a few studies have been performed over the years to determine the effectiveness of massage therapy in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. The results of most of these studies have shown that massage therapy is a non-invasive, non-pharmacological method to reduce the symptoms of these disorders. Since nearly every conventional treatment for these conditions involves some sort of medication, it is promising to note that they can be treated in a more holistic and drug free manner.

A number of studies were published in 2012 that concluded almost universally that massage therapy reduced the perception and chemical presence of stress in recipients. In these studies, questionnaires were provided to participants that assessed perceived stress levels. In some of the same studies, salivary or blood tests were performed to test for the presence of the stress hormones in patients before and after they received massage therapy. One such study, conducted in 2012 by researchers at UCLA, tested levels of oxytocin (the hormone associated with loving feelings and contentment), adrenocorticotropin hormone, nitric oxide, and beta endorphins. The latter three hormones are associated with stress. In this study, the participants who received massage therapy had reduced levels of the stress hormones and increased levels of oxytocin after receiving sessions of massage.

Another similar study was conducted with female nursing home patients under long term hospitalization. This study provided a questionnaire to measure perceived stress and general health, as well as a salivary amylase test. This study showed marked decreases in salivary stress markers, as well as improvements on the scores of the general health questionnaire. While there was not a marked decrease in these markers over the term of the study, there were decreasing tendencies. What this means is that stress can be reduced by regular sessions of massage therapy for both elderly patients and the general population.

As far as studies testing massage therapy and anxiety, there have a number performed over the last several years. One study looked at the effect of massage therapy versus a control group on cardiac patients who had undergone cardiovascular surgeries. This study provided massage therapy to a group of 20 patients for 3 days. At the end of the study, the authors concluded that massage therapy had caused statistically significant decreases in pain, anxiety, and tension in the patients who had been given massage therapy.

A study on adolescent psychiatric patients, where the patients received a 30 minute back massage for a period of five days, had similar results. The recipients of massage, versus the control group, had less depression and anxiety. This was verified through salivary tests which revealed that they had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Another study published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science studied the anxiety levels of participants who were receiving either a massage weekly or a break. The study found that the recipients of massage therapy had significantly lower levels of anxiety, and suggested that further studies were warranted.

As the studies of stress indicate that stress can be reduced by massage therapy, these studies show that anxiety can be reduced by massage therapy. There are many individuals who suffer from anxiety, and most of them turn to medications for relief. However, with all of the side effects that these medications also cause, such as sleeplessness, sleepwalking with no memory of the event, as well as bouts of extreme anxiety when their medication is skipped. This makes anxiety a somewhat difficult condition to treat; thus a non-pharmacological intervention should be welcomed by those suffering with this debilitating condition. Given the evidence presented, massage therapy is a non-invasive method of treating or augmenting treatment for anxiety, and should be recommended to those suffering from anxiety.

young man getting spa massage

Several recent studies have also been performed on individuals suffering from depression. Depression is a condition that is very difficult to treat, and in general only pharmacological methods are used. Since these prescriptions do not work for everyone, there are some individuals who suffer from depression and are unable to find relief for their symptoms. Additionally, there are certain patients who cannot take medications for this condition, usually because they are pregnant or in some cases because of an allergy. Massage therapy has shown promise in reducing the symptoms of this disorder.

A study by Tiffany Fields of the Touch Research Institute gave pregnant women who were diagnosed with major depression a once weekly massage for 12 weeks. The control group included women who were given standard medical treatment only. This study showed that not only were the symptoms of depression reduced during the end of their pregnancy, but these benefits also continued through the postpartum period. Other benefits were noted in this study as well, including reduced prematurity, increased birthweight, and better performance on the Braselton scales to assess newborns (habituation, orientation, and motor scales). This would indicate that massage therapy can help those suffering from depression, in both the long and short term.

Another study by the Touch Research Institute provided massage therapy or relaxation therapy to new mothers who had been diagnosed with depression. Once again in this study, the symptoms of depression were significantly relieved in the massage recipients, and this relief was further verified chemically. The massage therapy group experienced a decrease in anxious behavior, pulse, and salivary and urinary cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone, so a decrease in this hormone is a strong indicator that the massage therapy helped more than just outward symptoms; it caused a measurable chemical change in the individuals receiving it.

With this preponderance of evidence suggesting that massage therapy is helpful to those suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression, patients suffering from these conditions would benefit by seeking a qualified massage therapist. Most of the studies suggested that weekly or twice weekly sessions were most beneficial, since that is how the best results were obtained. For those looking to end their dependence on chemicals and to lead a normal and happy life, with less stress and fewer symptoms of depression, this may well be their best option. While there is a cost associated with it, of course, the promise of a more normal and healthy life makes the cost seem negligible in regards to what one can receive from this type of treatment.

Please see below for the studies mentioned in this article. Abstracts are freely available on pubmed for these studies.

Satou T, Chikama M, Chikama Y, Hachigo M, Urayama H, Murakami S, Hayashi S, Koikem K. Effect of Aromatherapy Massage on Elderly Patients Under Long-Term Hospitalization in Japan. J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Oct 12.

Morhenn V, Beavin LE, Zak PJ.(2012) Massage increases oxytocin and reduces adrenocorticotropin hormone in humans. Altern Ther Health Med. 2012 Nov-Dec;18(6):11-8.

Field, T., Diego, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Deeds, O. & Figueiredo, B. (2009). Pregnancy massage reduces prematurity, low birthweight and postpartum depression. Infant Behavior and Development, 32, 454-460.

Field, T., Grizzle, N., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Massage and relaxation therapies’ effects on depressed adolescent mothers. Adolescence, 31, 903-911.

Cutshall, S.M., Wentworth, L.J., Engen, D., Sundt, T.M., Kelly, R.F. & Bauer, B.A. (2010). Effects of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, and tension in cardiac surgical patients: a pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 16, 92-95.

Field, T., Morrow, C., Valdeon, C., Larson, S., Kuhn, C. & Schanberg, S. (1992). Massage reduces anxiety in child and adolescent psychiatric patients. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 31, 125-131.
Shulman, K.R. & Jones, G.E. (1996). The effectiveness of massage therapy intervention on reducing anxiety in the work place. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 32, 160-173.


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