Healing Hands: How Holistic Massage Therapy Can Help Treat Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression can make you feel isolated, but the physical touch of massage can help. Physiological science backs up massage as an effective therapy, for mind, body, and spirit. Massage as a holistic therapy in conjunction with other modalities at a residential treatment center can help, and you can continue with massage as part of your self-care routine going forward.

Warm, comforting touch is the first thing we come to know in this world as babies: our first experiences with love, acceptance, and joy stem from being held, from pats on the back, hugs, and gentle massages; physical touch is also our first language before we develop our voices. We are able to give and receive information and messages without saying a word before we learn how to speak—and then it becomes something we take for granted as we get older, believing that human beings after a certain age do not require connection through day-to-day physicality.

For those who struggle with depression or anxiety, shattering this belief is necessary. While a lack of physical touch does not necessarily lead to the onset of a mental health disorder, its absence can cause disruption in the regulation of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol—both of which are associated with the fight-or-flight response—and can even play a role in feeling unlovable or abnormal for desiring something that is often undervalued.

The Physiological Science Behind Massage as Therapy

Massage, when used as a holistic treatment method within a comprehensive mental health program spanning a variety of treatment modalities, can be greatly beneficial and serve your mental health in a variety of ways proven by science:

  • Massage can decrease cortisol levels (our primary stress hormone) by up to 50% after just a thirty-minute session. Consistently high cortisol levels can negatively alter the brain’s structure and level of functioning and directly contribute to the onset of anxiety by destroying neurons in the hypothalamus.
  • Massage simultaneously increases levels of both dopamine and serotonin (our primary feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain) by up to 30% after a thirty-minute session. Dopamine deficiency has been linked to low levels of motivation and an inability to feel pleasure—two of the most common symptoms of depression.
  • Massage can boost lower-than-normal blood pressure—a symptom often associated with adrenal fatigue, anxiety, and depression due to poor circulation and blood flow.

As beneficial as massage has been proven to be for mental health disorders and for overall improved health, it is important to remember that it should be used as a holistic supplement to evidence-based treatments and therapy—not as an alternative.

Massage Therapy for the Mind, Body, and Spirit

Because massage therapy focuses greatly on fostering and strengthening a positive mind-body connection, it can be of great aid as a complement to treatment in those who struggle with a psychological condition that is seemingly separate from their physical selves. This is because massage focuses on somatic sensations and their connection to specific emotions, helping you to become more acutely aware of how the two are linked and more easily able to recognize what you are feeling. Understanding both your positive and negative emotions and how they manifest in both your mind and body through massage can help you recognize and manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Massage can also have an impact on our relationship to our physical selves, allowing us to feel more present and aware in our bodies. Because touch activates our skin’s pressure receptors and they consequently release oxytocin—otherwise known as the “cuddle” hormone—massage therapy helps to promote feelings of trust and attachment. Struggling with depression and severe anxiety can cause sufferers to withdraw socially and emotionally from others, and regenerating the ability to function healthily in those ways can begin with a massage from a trusted professional.

With regular practice, massage therapy can also reinforce feelings of comfort and relaxation and improve the relationship you have with your body. Any lingering discomfort we have with touch that was developed in childhood or adolescence can be tackled by trusting in holistic massage as a component of therapy for your depression or anxiety, and can aid in the breaking down of any physical, emotional, or spiritual walls that may have been built through trust and self-care.

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Maintain Massage as Self-Care After Treatment

The wide-ranging advantages of massage are comprehensive and cumulative—meaning that the longer you maintain a self-care routine after treatment that includes regular massage, the longer the benefits from it will last. While regular, professional massages are certainly the most effective way to receive the benefits of touch, the good news is that you can take personal steps in-between your ongoing professional therapy and massage sessions in order to continue receiving these mind and body benefits.

Simple neck massages can not only relieve pain, but can reduce the chances of headache and feelings of stress after a long day. A basic foot massage with a golf ball can greatly help your fatigue if you are your feet all day, and a gentle temple rub before bedtime can help you sleep easy. Even just five minutes of quiet self-massage can have a great effect on your overall health and well-being, in conjunction with continued therapy to help maintain control over your depression or anxiety on your healing journey.

Though you may no longer be a newborn craving love or a young child needing affection, your need for physical contact never goes away. Its importance can sometimes get lost in the midst of struggle, pain, and difficult situations—but massage and a commitment to building your mind-body connection through self-care can help you maintain a positive mental state after treatment and beyond.

Bridges to Recovery offers compassionate and knowledgeable residential treatment for those coping with mental health disorders, and we offer a range of therapies and holistic practices to suit your needs, including massage. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Mathias Reed