Why get a massage? According to a survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association, 28% of Americans who get a massage do so for relaxation and stress reduction.
That’s a lot of people in the US who feel pretty good about how massage helps them manage their stress. But warm fuzzies aside, what exactly do we know about massage and how it relates to stress and anxiety? And what does the research have to say about that?
Stress is your body’s response to demanding circumstances. Working long hours? You’re probably stressed. Studying for a big exam? Definitely stressful. Toddler throwing a tantrum? Probably stressful for both of you.
When stressed, your blood pressure goes up. Your breathing and heart rate increase. You may feel agitated and distracted. This is useful if you’re a prey animal that needs to flee for its life. Less useful if your stress the result of a loved one in need of patience and comfort.
When exposed to occasional stress, we can usually diffuse it and recover relatively quickly. When stress becomes a chronic condition, health problems can result.
Anxiety, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a reaction to circumstances. Most often, it’s related to anticipated future or potential stress.
As with stress, anxiety isn’t necessarily an immediate health problem, although it’s unpleasant. Feeling a bit anxious about an exam, the birth of a baby, or a big presentation can give you a push to prepare as best you can.
Anxiety becomes unhelpful when it is overwhelming, requiring you to focus all your energy on surviving your immediate feelings rather than addressing their roots. Pacing, nail biting, trembling, and vomiting are signs that anxiety is veering into unhelpful territory. Test anxiety, social anxiety, and decision anxiety are all common forms of anxiety.
Anxiety disorder is the general term for chronic, excessive anxiety in response to everyday situations. Anxiety disorders include:
Many people discover that they have more than one type of anxiety disorder. Others deal with anxiety combined with depression, PTDS, eating disorders, alcoholism, or substance abuse. While stress and anxiety are more general terms that you can probably identify in yourself, anxiety disorders can only be diagnosed by a physician.
Stress: Stress levels are largely subjective. However, studies focused on pain, sleep, and other outcomes often find that patients report decreased stress levels as a major benefit of massage therap.
In one study on pain in acute care settings, more than half of the patients mentioned relaxation in their survey responses. One patient described the receiving massage as “very helpful, soothing, comforting, and relaxing.” A notable result, considering the stress of hospitalization. Patients and nurses also reported improved emotional well-being and sleep – both good indicators of stress reduction.
Anxiety: Most studies done on massage and anxiety have focused on specific populations. One study found significant improvement in both long term and immediate anxiety in children with cancer and blood diseases who received Swedish massage.
Another measured the physiological responses to stress (blood pressure and pulse) in hospitalized children and found similar results. Cardiac care patients were the focus of another study. Again, massage was helpful in reducing anxiety. Still, larger and broader studies on the matter still need to be done.
There have been relatively few studies on massage therapy for anxiety disorders specifically. Most studies that have been done are generally small and lacking good control groups. One randomized controlled trial found that massage therapy was significantly helpful for people with generalized anxiety disorder, but no more so than other relaxation techniques.
This study only measured improvement over multiple weeks, and not feelings of anxiety in the short term, before and after treatments. Because this study didn’t have a no-treatment control group, they weren’t able to state whether all three were equally effective or equally ineffective.
People regularly feel that massage helps reduce their stress and anxiety. There are also other techniques, such as Reiki, that seem to be helpful to varying degrees, depending on the situation and the person.
This is helpful to know, because not everyone enjoys massage. For some, touch itself can be a source of stress and anxiety. Therefore, it’s helpful to know that there are other complementary therapies available that also create positive results.
Stress and anxiety are closely tied to pain, sleep, and other factors. Reducing pain reduces stress levels. Reducing stress levels can also reduce pain. Improving sleep can impact both pain and stress, and vice versa. Does massage therapy work primarily through either pain or stress reduction, or does it impact both equally? This is an area for further study.
Massage therapy is a fairly safe way to manage stress and anxiety. With relatively few drug interactions and a very low chance for injury, massage therapy can be helpful to a wide variety of people dealing with stress and anxiety in different situations. From the smallest infants to athletes to people in hospice, there are few who could not benefit from massage therapy.
There is a lot more to learn. While there is a lot of research on massage for pain, massage for anxiety (and especially massage for anxiety disorders) has less research to back it up. It will take time and money before a large body of knowledge has been built up.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, massage therapy is worth trying. The evidence is still rolling in, but what we have is promising. Are you ready to give it a try? Book your next massage today. Click HERE to book now.