The Healing Touch: The Benefits of Massage Therapy For Mental Health

Massage therapy is an ancient practice that has been employed to promote physical and emotional health since the earliest human civilizations. Although for some massage conjures up images of superfluous luxury, the practice is actually a deeply healing, versatile, and evidence-based practice that can alleviate both bodily and psychological distress and play an integral role in the treatment of mental health disorders. Growing awareness of the medical benefits of massage is shedding light on the exact mechanisms behind its therapeutic properties.

Neurochemical Benefits for Anxiety and Depression


While massage can be deeply relaxing on a purely physical level, research also indicates that it produces profound neurochemical changes that increase psychological well-being. One study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that serotonin increased an average of 28% and dopamine levels increased 31% following massage therapy.[1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447] These neurological changes may explain why people with depression and anxiety who receive massage treatments report decreased symptoms. A meta-analysis of studies on massage as a treatment for depression published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that “Massage therapy is significantly associated with alleviated depressive symptoms.”[2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20361919] Meanwhile, a pilot study on young adults in an inpatient psychiatric unit reported that, “Massage therapy had immediate beneficial effects on anxiety-related measures.”[3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18478478]

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Massage Therapy for Stress Reduction


Stress produces a host of physiological symptoms that can seriously impact both physical and psychological health. Chief among these is the elevation of cortisol, a stress hormone that can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and weight gain, impair memory, and increase risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. The symptoms of mental health disorders themselves may also lead to increased cortisol levels, creating a cycle of chronic and perpetual stress hormone release as your brain struggles to cope with overwhelming psychological conditions. Massage can be an effective way to break through this cycle and reduce cortisol levels to bring your body back to hormonal equilibrium. According to a series of studies reviewed by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, cortisol levels fell by up to 53% among subjects “with depression or stress problems” immediately following massage therapy.[4. http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/natural-remedies/how-massage-helps-depression-and-anxiety]

The Healing Power of Touch


Human touch is essential to our sense of well-being, as starkly demonstrated in Harlow’s infamous monkey experiments. Far from simply being an arbitrarily pleasurable sensory experience, skin-on-skin contact with other human beings is critical to not only early childhood development, but to maintaining emotional and social wellness throughout our lives. One particularly remarkable benefit of human touch is its ability to induce oxytocin release. Oxytocin, also known as the love or bonding hormone, imbues us with a sense of belonging, stability, trust, and enhanced sociability. Research has found that the hormone can decrease social anxiety, depression, and stress, while increasing empathy, generosity, self-esteem, and optimism, and alleviating psychological distress.[5. http://io9.com/5925206/10-reasons-why-oxytocin-is-the-most-amazing-molecule-in-the-world] Oxytocin has even been found to reduce fear in people with PTSD and improve responsiveness to treatment.[6. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453013004344]

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Strengthening the Mind-Body Connection


As a therapeutic practice that centers on the body, massage therapy inherently involves an exploration of somatic responses. For many, this can be a deeply beneficial practice in which you are afforded the time to listen to your body, pay attention to its sensations, investigate the relationship between emotional and somatic states, and honor what your physical self is experiencing. People who experience psychological conditions that disrupt their own sense of connection to their bodies can find massage therapy to be particularly helpful to establish a more positive understanding of their physicality. For example, a group of German researchers noted that “body-oriented therapy is worthy of consideration as a method for giving schizophrenic patients a greater awareness of their own bodily limits.”[7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8511959] Others who may have difficult or disordered relationships with their bodies as the result of trauma or eating disorders often find that massage therapy offers a safe and supportive way of healing and creating a healthier relationship with their physical selves while increasing bodily awareness.

Integrating Massage Therapy in Mental Health Treatment


At Bridges to Recovery, we have seen the tremendous benefits massage therapy can have for our clients, and incorporate massage therapy in all of our treatment plans. Your massage experience will be tailored to your specific needs and limits, and our massage therapists will work with you to ensure that you remain safe and comfortable during your sessions. Not only does massage provide much-needed relaxation throughout the treatment process, but its neurochemical effects can enhance your ability to participate in and benefit from other therapies throughout the program, allowing you to experience even more profound healing and personal growth.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people living with mental health disorders that draws on a range of evidence-based therapies and holistic practices, including massage. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.