What are the psychological effects of massage therapy?

We all know that massage therapy helps with aches and pains in the body, but have you

considered the psychological benefits?

Personally, I experienced burnout around 6 years ago and was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. Massage therapy (and a regular yoga practice) helped me regain my overall sense of wellness and brought me back to life. There were days that I felt so exhausted that it made completing simple tasks extremely overwhelming. Then, there were days that I felt so stressed and anxious that I had trouble relaxing and sleeping, to the point where I developed panic attacks in the middle of the night. I didn’t know about the psychological effects of massage at the time, but I always felt like it gave me energy when I was exhausted and helped me feel calm and sleep better when I was stressed. It is, still to this day, one of the greatest tools I use in stress management and in maintaining my personal sense of wellness.

Thanks to the advancement in research in the areas of massage therapy and the nervous system, researchers have found that massage increases relaxation, reduces stress and decreases anxiety and depression. Some clinical studies have also found that massage therapy has positive effects on neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin and on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is responsible for reduction of the heart rate; constriction of pupils; secretion of most glands, such as the salivary glands and the gastric glands in the stomach; and facilitation of the digestive process. The PNS creates the optimal environment in the body for healing and deep rest. The state is also known as the “rest and digest” state. Have you ever noticed your stomach growling embarrassingly half-way in a massage session? It’s a good thing because you have likely entered the “rest and digest” state. Your massage therapist knows this!

There have also been interesting studies on how massage affects job-related stress. After just a 15 minute on-the-job massage, results yielded a reduction in the saliva level of cortisol (the stress hormone). The subjects reported feeling more alert, which was supported by an EEG study that showed brain waves consistent with increased alertness. Following the massage, the subjects were also able to solve computerized problems quicker with 50% less errors (Turnbull,1994/5).

Since the mind and body are interconnected and function as a whole, mental stress can lead to physical stress and vice versa. Some common manifestations of stress in the body are muscle stiffness, trigger points, jaw clenching, tight upper shoulders, shallow breathing and exhaustion. Massage therapy treats not only the body but the mind as well. There are two main goals in treating stress – decrease the nervous system from firing and treat muscle hypertonicity.

You may have heard of the term Swedish massage; which is a common term for a general relaxation massage. The modern era of massage therapy started in the early nineteenth century. One of the most prominent practitioners at the time was Pehr Henrik Ling, a Swedish Psychologist and gymnast, who developed his own massage system in treating patients. The common techniques are gliding, kneading, frictioning, compression, percussion and vibration. The sequence is usually very fluid and rhythmical, and can be done with light or firm pressure. His system was being adopted widely in the Western world and is known today as Swedish Massage, named after this nationality. If you ask for a general relaxation massage, your massage therapist will likely perform a Swedish massage using a combination of those techniques. Heat may also be used to facilitate further relaxation.

To summarize, massage therapy has the following effects:

● Increase serotonin

● Increase dopamine

● Increase relaxation

● Improve sleep

● Decrease stress, depression and anxiety

● Improve cognitive functioning

The bonus part of massage therapy is that you don’t really have to do anything! You literally just lay there and will always feel better afterwards.

Alycia Ho, RMT, B.Mgt

Works Cited

Rattray, Fiona, and Linda Ludwig. Clinical Massage Therapy. Talus, 2000.

Salvo, Susan. Massage Therapy Principles and Practice. Elsevier, 2016.

Turnbull, Wendy. Massage and Medicine Emerging. vol. 8, no. Ontario Massage Therapist Association Newsletter, 1994/5.