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Relax Your Way to Wellness: Massage Therapy as a Treatment for Depression and Anxiety




One in every four people in the US will have a psychiatric syndrome in their lifetime1.  The impacts of mental illness span the gamut, from increased risk of morbidity and mortality, family system dysfunction, to the immense burden on the healthcare system and even extending to profound impacts on the global economy.  The implications are huge and yet, in western medicine, we focus on medication interventions almost exclusively.  While medication has an important role in the treatment of mental illness, the solution goes way beyond taking a pill.  Many integrative treatments are associated with reduced use of psychopharmacological interventions, reduction in healthcare expenses and significant improvements in outcomes.  


So, let’s explore how massage therapy stacks up as a treatment modality for mental health issues.  


The Mind-Body Connection:

The mind and body are inextricably connected, and any imbalance in one can affect the other. We hear this all of the time, but really, it is profound.  Patients come to me with complaints of upper respiratory symptoms, GI symptoms, skin problems like acne and hives, neurological symptoms like headache, numbness and tingling, and even inflammatory processes, reduced wound healing, the examples are truly endless.  It’s not uncommon that as a person’s mood or anxiety is treated, their physical symptoms resolve.  This doesn't mean that the physical symptoms were manufactured or weren’t real.  It means that our good physical health is dependent on good brain health (and vice versa).   


Depression and anxiety are commonly accompanied by physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, appetite changes, and disrupted sleep. Massage therapy, with its focus on the body, can serve as a bridge to address both the physical and emotional aspects of mental health conditions. The power of touch has been recognized throughout history, and research supports its use in the treatment of depression anxiety and other mental health conditions. 


Massage Alters Hormone and Neurotransmitter Signaling: 

Elevated cortisol levels, a stress hormone, is associated with numerous mental health conditions. Massage therapy has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, promoting activation of the rest and repose part of our nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system). Normalization of cortisol levels correlates with improved mental health symptoms. 

Massage therapy has been associated with the release of feel-good neurotransmitters. The kneading and pressure applied during a massage stimulate the production of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Additionally, massage has been linked to an increase in serotonin levels. Serotonin, often referred to as the "happy hormone," plays a crucial role in regulating mood, and its deficiency is associated with depressive disorders. 


Improved Sleep Patterns:

Depression and anxiety disorders often disrupt sleep architecture, leading to insomnia or irregular sleep cycles. Massage therapy has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration.  Sleep benefits from massage have even been demonstrated in the setting of the postpartum, and perimenopause.  


Building a Supportive Environment:

Beyond the physiological benefits, the therapeutic setting of a massage session creates a safe and supportive environment. The trust established between the massage therapist and the client fosters emotional well-being. This nurturing atmosphere encourages clients to express their emotions, providing an additional outlet for addressing the psychological aspects of depression.


Conclusion:

As we navigate the pitfalls of the “standards of care” in the US, exploring alternative and complementary therapies becomes increasingly crucial. Massage therapy, with its ability to improve both physical and emotional symptoms of mental health episodes, should be considered as a safe and effective strategy for augmenting treatment plans.  As the benefits continue to be revealed through systematic study, health insurance companies may begin to provide coverage as an inexpensive prophylactic treatment, reducing healthcare expenditures overall.  Until then, this tool is accessible only to those who have the means. 

While massage therapy may not replace conventional treatments, it can complement existing strategies, contributing to a more comprehensive and holistic approach to treating mental health conditions. As you optimize your own wellness, consider giving yourself the gift of healing hands and explore the transformative power of massage therapy. 


 

1 Hyman. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2018 Jan 24.16(1): 24–31. Doi: 10.1176/appi.focus.20170043

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