The Science of Massage
Massage can treat physical problems through a direct interaction with the body. The mental health aspects are a bit less direct but still profound.
Massage will change and disrupt the chemicals that are distributed throughout the body in the brain. Most notably, massage interacts with cortisol, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.
- Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during times of stress. Problems emerge when your body is under high levels of stress and produces high levels of cortisol chronically. Too much of this substance is related to poor cell health that may lead to the death of cells and premature aging. Massage is shown to reduce current levels of cortisol in the body, which can boost mood, appetite, and ability to sleep.
- Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most associated with depression. Many medications used for depression focus on increasing amounts of serotonin available in the brain. Low serotonin is related to low mood, poor sleep, poor memory, and low sexual desire. High amounts of serotonin are associated with good mood and happiness. Massage may decrease depression by triggering a surge of serotonin.
- Oxytocin is often called the “cuddle hormone” because it is released during physical touches like hugs, kisses, and cuddles. High levels of oxytocin lead to someone feeling connected to the others in their life. Without this strong sense of belonging, a person can feel isolated, frustrated, and unhappy. Unsurprisingly, the physical touch of massage increases oxytocin.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates a rush of pleasure when available in the brain. It is a highly rewarding sensation that people try to recreate often. Many drugs like heroin and cocaine release dopamine to produce their addictive effects. To a lesser extent, dopamine may be released during massage.
Trial and Error
Though there is good evidence pointing to massage being helpful, there is not a good understanding of what types of massage are best for various types of people.
Since massage differs greatly in type, style, and level of expertise of the person giving the massage, it would be unreasonable to think that the first massage you get will dramatically change your level of depression. Because of this, it will be helpful to engage in a trial and error method of investigation to experiment with several options to note what works for you.
Based on your resources, frequent appointments with a professional massage therapist might be difficult to obtain due to availability, finances, and insurance coverage. If this applies to you, consider these alternatives:
- Locate an amateur. If professional massage therapists are not an option, you will have to seek out the services of an amateur. Hire, bribe, or otherwise try to convince a friend, family member, or trusted loved one to give you a massage. If they lack expertise, be sure to provide feedback on what seems helpful and what seem uncomfortable.
- Find substitutions for physical contact. Kiss. Have sex. Since these forms of physical contact release oxytocin, they may be able to produce some of the same massage benefits.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). What PMR lacks in the physical touch from another, it makes up for with its ability to relieve tension and de-stress your body. PMR works by alternating the process of tensing and relaxing sections of your body, which creates a self-massaging effect.
Don’t stop your medications when trying massage for depression, and be sure to keep your therapy appointments.
Massage seems to be an effective measure to alleviate depression, but it appears that the best success comes when the physical touch is added to your existing treatment plan rather than as an alternative. This low risk, high reward option might be the intervention need to gain the happiness you have been seeking.