Author: Ngametua Varu
The world is facing a mental health crisis, and many are seeking natural solutions to be used in conjunction with prescribed medications.
Massage Therapy may be one of these natural, holistic treatment options for you.
Upwards of 50 million Americans experienced mental illness in 2019 alone, and these numbers have increased following the COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing a cultural shift though, in which more people are opening up about their struggles and putting an emphasis on self-care strategies.
Personally, as someone in their early 20s who struggles with diagnosed PTSD and Bipolar Depression, I have found massage therapy to be life changing. Not only do I make sure to receive regular massage treatment, but I actually took the step to enroll in a massage therapy licensure program at Pacific Northwest Massage Academy.
Before coming to school, I had been working for 3 years in a very high-stress office. As a notorious workaholic, with (at the time) undiagnosed mental health disorders, I was losing myself to the job and couldn't find a way to pull myself out. My chronic back pain from poor desk posture added to my seemingly everlasting list of issues so one day I decided to book myself a massage and in that one hour, I felt the angry beehive of emotion in my brain briefly quiet.
I then had the realization that this is the kind of environment I want to be in and the way I want to help others, so I took the leap and fell deeply in love with massage and the mind-blowing ways in which it can improve our lives.
An increasing number of people are now adding massage therapy to their self-care list.
#1 Massage Therapy for Anxiety
Research studies suggest that moderate pressure massage can have a beneficial effect on feelings of anxiety. During these studies, results showed moderate pressure massage had a positive effect on the left frontal lobe of the brain which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotion control, and personality.
One of the studies compared two groups of people with anxiety, where one group received a 15-minute, moderate pressure massage, and the other rested quietly for 15 minutes.
Results showed the group that received massage showed greater levels of oxytocin (nicknamed "the love hormone") and lower ACTH levels compared to the group that rested quietly.
ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), made by the pituitary gland, controls the production of Cortisol which is increased during a stress response. Decreases in ACTH and Cortisol allow the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, taking us out of "fight or flight mode" and allowing for relaxation and decreased anxiety.
#2 - Massage and Depression
Studies suggest that moderate pressure massage can increase vagal (vagus nerve) stimulation, in turn reducing cortisol levels in depressed individuals. The vagus nerve is known as the 10th cranial nerve and is the body's major player in parasympathetic activation. Due to the large size of the nerve and the number of connections to different organs, it's considered the largest contributor to the mind-body connection.
Data from an fMRI study showed that following moderate pressure massage, cerebral blood flow increased in several brain regions involved in depression and stress regulation, including the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the anterior cingulate cortex.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex.
The fMRI results suggested that human touch with movement most strongly activated the anterior cingulate cortex compared to both static and moving touch of the same pressure with gloved hands.
“The real purpose of giving massage is to foster more depth of feeling for one another in order to bring out the love that often lies buried beneath the pain of everyday suffering.” ~Robert Calvert
#3 Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
In one laboratory study, increased attentiveness was noted in a group that had just received a 15-minute chair massage. Patterns of increased alertness and attentiveness were related to better performance on math computations following immediately after the massage, with subjects calculating in less time and with more accuracy.
It is again believed that the increase in vagal activity brought on by massage plays a role in this increased attentiveness in both adults and adolescents with ADHD. Pooled analysis showed that massage produced more improvement in ADHD symptoms in terms of effective rate compared to Ritalin. This being said, always consult your medical health care provider before starting or stopping any medications. You can also speak with your medical provider about massage therapy and if they think it will be a beneficial treatment for you.
#4 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Similar to the other conditions above, the ability of massage therapy to reduce cortisol levels in the body plays a key role in symptom management for PTSD. Long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol has been shown to slowly atrophy brain regions like the amygdala and the hypothalamus.
This atrophy can lead to a lasting neurological change in how the brain responds to stressful stimuli making us more reactive and quicker to upset. Getting regular massage to reduce those cortisol levels can lead to an increased mood, better regulation of the sleep cycle, and have a positive effect on those experiencing dissociative feelings by bringing a sense of self-awareness back to the body.
Attending professional psychological therapy and in some cases using prescription medications are also a huge part of symptom management for PTSD.
Every Body Is Different
There is no one "cure-all" treatment for any of these conditions. Each one is a complex disorder with many facets to consider when developing treatment plans. It is always best to consult your medical healthcare provider or professional psychologist if you have been experiencing intense feelings of depression or anxiety that are prohibiting you from enjoying your daily life. Hopefully, now you have even more knowledge to carry with you into those conversations to help you better make a decision that will be right for you.
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