Is massage good for anxiety and depression?
Compared to many Eastern cultures, massage therapy is relatively new in the United States. For example, in China massage has been heavily utilized for over 3,000 years. Practitioners manipulate muscles and soft tissues to loosen tension, provide relief, and enhance function.
In more recent times, however, the idea of using massage therapy for anxiety and depression has gained popularity. The belief is that touch can create an emotional connection by releasing certain hormones within the body. Aside from simply relieving physical aches and pains, the idea now is that massage can help to improve one’s mood.
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Massage and mental health
What’s more, scientists are beginning to uncover evidence that massage therapy may offer mental health benefits. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, for one, has performed clinical trials suggesting that massage can help in the relief of depression. Repetitive movement can create tightness or sore, tense spots within muscles, causing pain and limiting movement and flexibility. Massage therapy can, in turn, help relieve tightness or soreness, increasing blood flow and promoting relaxation.
Those who suffer from depression should not expect massage to magically lift away their condition. But it may help relieve some of the physical symptoms commonly associated with depression: sluggishness, back pain, joint pain, and muscle aches. Massage can also help in the relief of fatigue and alleviate some sleeping problems.
Massage therapy in action
Dawn McCartney, LMT, NMT, FS, CHC, is a member of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). Her primary focus is in neuromuscular therapy or medical massage. She also works as a certified health coach. In her role as a licensed massage therapist, she works in the areas of oncology and hospice/palliative care. More recently, Dawn has begun to work with veterans, people who have suffered from domestic violence, and other populations who have suffered from both physical and mental trauma.
“As far as referral sources, I work with mental health counselors—psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and psychologists,” she explained. “People were finding me. I was able to say this was something I had a passion for back when I was in school, which I developed out of working with clients nearing the end of life.”
Aside from the benefits of massage therapy in terms of relaxing the mind, promoting metabolism, and generating certain healing hormones, McCartney began to notice the benefits of ‘touch’ therapy on this particular population.
“I did a lot of research, including my own case studies of clients, in order to gain a comparison of the difference when people walk in for the first time as opposed to when they walk out,” she explained. “Some of them, by following certain protocols, were able to go from stress levels of 10 to levels of zero.”
Best massage for anxiety and depression
McCartney spoke about the power of intention. She used compassionate touch, guided meditation, and even using Swedish massage techniques during talk therapy sessions. In these cases, the client, McCartney, and the psychotherapist would all be present in the room.
The key, says McCartney, is viewing the person as a whole. “The intention is to work methodically. Every massage stroke that I’m using, every area I’m working on, is done with the intention of promoting the healing of that section. It allows the client to realize they are in a safe place. There’s no reason to be anxious, and if there is depression, you’re reminding them of their self-worth.”
Swedish massage, a common technique where the therapist applies smooth, circular, kneading motions to the muscles, is used most commonly with this population. “It’s never something where you’d use trigger point or therapeutic (deep tissue) massage,” said McCartney. “At first, I had patients asking for deep tissue or therapeutic massage, but this was actually worsening the condition.
“Client after client kept using the word ‘compassionate.’ They felt safe, and they felt like they could let go, and have emotional, somatic releases. I attribute that to the power of intention.”
Reflexology and acupressure
McCartney has also utilized reflexology or acupressure points for stress. “Acupressure means you’re using digital or static compression with your fingers as opposed to a needle,” she explained. “Different points on the body can be activated to reduce stress, nausea, and other conditions of that nature.”
In summary, McCartney believes mental clarity is the chief benefit, in terms of offering heightened mental clarity. “Confusion, racing thoughts… I’ve worked with bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, as well as physical and mental trauma,” she said. “I’m actually working to make these their own protocols because anxiety and depression are very much the opposite of PTSD in terms of treatment.”
Not a cure-all
McCartney warned, however, against the idea of massage as a cure-all. “It’s not designed to take the place of any other mental health counseling,” she cautioned. “Clients should not believe that massage therapy can take the place of talk therapy, or doing physical therapy—any other therapies prescribed by a doctor. That’s not the idea. Massage for anxiety and depression is designed to supplement any other therapies that the client is currently receiving.”
In fact, when a person comes to see McCartney, she considers it almost a prerequisite that the client is receiving another form of therapy so that she can consult with that doctor. “Massage should never be used to take the place of another therapy, and especially not medication,” she warned.
Staying informed and up-to-date
On the therapist’s side, McCartney stressed that those therapists looking to get into this area of work should be prepared to continue learning throughout their journey. “These days, it seems everyone has some degree of anxiety or depression,” she lamented. “I call it the dot-com world. We’re a society that is one-half convenience, but the other half doesn’t want to leave home out of fear.”
“It’s critical to receive advanced training from different resources — CEUs, reading medical journals — getting that insight as to what goes through the mind, and gaining more depth into working with these special populations.”