As the most common mental illness, about 18% of American adults suffer from some form of anxiety. There are various treatment options, ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to medication, but for those looking to add a more natural remedy to their anxiety management, massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress. But that leaves the question: Do massages help anxiety?
Understanding Anxiety Disorders
According to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), there are 7* classified anxiety disorders:
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Selective Mutism
- Specific Phobia
- Social Phobia
- Panic Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
*In previous editions of the DSM, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were listed as anxiety disorders, but are now listed as separate categories.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their life—it is a natural response to potential threats and is meant to keep you out of harm’s way. But when it starts to interfere with your daily life without reasonable stressors, you could be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety affects everyone differently, but common symptoms include:
- Problems sleeping (insomnia, restlessness, etc.)
- Muscle tension
- Excessive worry
- Panic attacks
The Science Behind Anxiety
Anxiety elicits what is known as your “flight or fight” response. Multiple areas of your brain react and release hormones, such as ACTH, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) to prepare the body to respond to the stressful situation. All of these hormones cause your body to react in the following ways:
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Constricted blood vessels
- Pupil dilation
- Tunnel vision
- Flushed face
- Dry mouth
- And more
Now that we have explained the details of anxiety disorders, it’s time to learn: do massages help anxiety?
The Power of Touch
As humans, we are incredibly social creatures, and physical touch is critical in all stages of life. In Harry Harlow’s famous psychological study with baby monkeys, the monkeys that were raised by the softer, warmer surrogate mother grew up to better adjusted in their adult lives than their wire-only surrogate counterparts. His studies told us a lot about mother/child bonding, and the importance of physical touch in infants.
As we get older, this need does not dissipate, and anxiety disorders oftentime lead to feelings of isolation. When in an isolated state, you are typically getting less physical contact, which worsens symptoms.
Luckily, touch is incredibly powerful. In a study conducted by neuroscientists, people played catch with a computer, which they were told was controlled by a real person. When the computer stopped the game, the subjects’ brains lit up as if they were experiencing physical pain, not just emotional pain. They discovered that the best way to alleviate this pain was through touch: “One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching.”
Additionally, touch is mutually beneficial. In an article by Psychology Today, the reciprocal nature is stressed: “You can’t touch without being touched.” In fact, both parties receive the same cortisol-reducing, heart-rate slowing effects of touch.
Massage Therapy for Anxiety Relief
According the the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), “an average of 19% of adult Americans received at least one massage between July 2015 and July 2016.” From that group, 50% cited physical reasons for the treatment (pain management, soreness/stiffness, injury rehabilitation, etc.) and 28% cited psychological reasons (stress reduction, relaxation, etc.).
With an understanding of the positive and stress-reducing effects touch has on us, here are five reasons why massage therapy can help manage anxiety.
1. You feel connected
In the same way that physical touch helps strengthen marriages, it also helps connect strangers. When you’re receiving a massage, you feel connected and secure with your massage therapist, which helps release endorphins, and is especially beneficial for those dealing with isolating thoughts.
2. Promotes better sleep
By reducing cortisol and lowering your heart rate, massages help people not only fall asleep easier, but also experience longer periods of deep sleep, which “reduces the neurotransmitter associated with pain.”
3. Improved immune system
Massages can help keep you healthy by “increas[ing] the activity level of the body’s white blood cells that work to combat viruses.” This is especially pertinent to those who suffer from anxiety since increased amounts of cortisol have a damaging effect on the immune system.
4. Decreased heart rate and blood pressure
Because massage therapy helps relax both the body and the mind, blood pressure and heart rate slow down during a treatment. Remembering that both of these are classic symptoms of an anxiety disorder, decreasing these will help you relax and stay relaxed.
5. Releases endorphins and hormones
While receiving a massage, your body is releasing a sleu of helpful neurohormones (hormones produced by the nervous system). From dopamine to serotonin to oxytocin, these helpful hormones can dramatically help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and leave you feeling balanced and centered.
So, do massages help anxiety? In short, yes; however, getting regular massages will not cure an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a serious medical condition that cannot be cured, but rather, is managed through various methods of treatments that are specific to your unique condition.
Fortunately, massage therapy is a natural remedy that poses very little risk to anxiety sufferers; however, we recommend discussing treatment options with your doctor before scheduling an appointment.
If you are experiencing several (at least three) symptoms of anxiety lasting for at least six months, consult your doctor for treatment options.
To learn more about our team of board-certified massage therapists, click here.