Massage therapy offers myriad physical benefits, but we sometimes forget everything hands-on treatments can do for our emotional well-being. Let’s take a quick look at the importance of touch and some of the specific ways it can help our mental and emotional health.
From the earliest days of humankind, when one person reached out to soothe another, we have known that welcomed physical contact is good for us. The loving touch that occurs between infants and their caregivers helps create a sense of safety in the world that follows us for a lifetime. Touch that occurs between humans helps us build our foundational relationships, supports social interaction, enables emotional sharing, and provides many other benefits.
By contrast, research shows us that prolonged touch deprivation experienced by infants and young children is connected with failure to thrive and the inability to create social attachments, and with shorter lifespans and more illness in isolated elders.
The need for healthy touch is so important, and the consequences of touch deprivation are so dire, that groundbreaking anthropologist Ashley Montagu gave our drive for this form of human-to-human interaction a name: touch hunger. We know that touch is a basic human need, but we live in a society with few appropriate venues for physical contact. Where does healthy touch (outside of sexual activity) occur between non-related adults in our culture? We only see it in the context of greetings and leave-takings, sports, professional grooming, or health care. Massage therapy is an intervention that bridges those last two; in some settings it could be considered part of grooming, and in others it is offered as health care.
Massage and Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD
For mental and emotional well-being, massage therapy has a surprisingly robust body of evidence showing benefits for people with depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mood-related challenges. Much of this research has been done in settings where depression, anxiety, and stress are part of a larger health picture (such as among hospital patients, or in the context of chronic pain), although one study looked at the effects of massage therapy on 70 women diagnosed with anxiety and depression who underwent a month of spa treatments; not surprisingly, their stress-related hormones and other biochemical changes suggested that massage can be helpful in this circumstance.
Anxiety can be a freestanding disorder that radically impairs a person’s quality of life. It can also develop as a part of a complicated health challenge. In either case, welcomed touch in the form of massage therapy has been seen to be an effective treatment component. Results show it can be effective for patients with generalized anxiety disorder. It was also seen to decrease anxiety scores in hospital settings and among caregivers of patients with cancer. Additional studies have found that massage with and without aromatherapy improved anxiety among patients in palliative care and in those receiving dialysis.
Several studies found massage therapy benefits for people living with depression, both as a freestanding disorder and as a part of a complicated health situation. A systematic review found that aromatherapy massage was substantially more effective than aromatherapy alone for this population. One study found clearly better results for people with major depressive disorder receiving Swedish massage compared to a sham treatment. This is important because it helps delineate between the effect of the bodywork and the positive effect of spending time with an attentive caregiver. Both are useful, but in this situation the massage was more powerful.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Massage therapy is often recommended for refugees, veterans, and survivors of torture, if people are comfortable with touching and being touched. Participants in these studies reported reductions in pain, tension, anxiety, irritability, depression, and other negative aspects of living with this complicated and challenging disorder.
This is just a brief overview of some of the work that has been done in the context of massage and mental and emotional wellness. The field of massage therapy research is growing quickly, and each new study helps us understand more about how we can use massage therapy to promote our health and how to integrate massage therapy with conventional health care.