Massage Therapy for Emotional Health

Massage Therapy for Emotional Health

Since the pandemic began, there has been more emphasis and public awareness around mental health. There has also been an increase in commercials that target medications and 800 numbers to call for help if someone is struggling with anxiety or depression. 

Did you also know that massage therapy can be a great complement to go with traditional forms of psychotherapy and medications? Research has shown:

  • Six 30-minute massages over a two-week period can ease pain and improve mood among people with advanced cancer.
  • Massage can help reduce depression in both children and pregnant women. As little as 15 minutes of massage on a regular basis may be beneficial to mood.
  • Massage therapy is helpful for trauma victims. Aside from physical pain, victims of trauma will often hold memories of such events in their muscle tissues. By receiving massage from a trained professional, one can get back in touch with their body and be able to access the held emotions.

If you struggle with emotional and mental health issues like anxiety and depression, understanding how the brain works, the hormones that are involved, and how massage therapy can relieve some of your symptoms can be the start of a journey to feeling better. 

Poorly managed emotions, negative attitudes, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness create chronic stress and upset hormone balance. These can all deplete the brain’s chemical messengers required for happiness and can negatively impact your immune system. Stress can also destroy valuable brain cells over time.

The Brain

There are three main structures in the brain that are responsible for your emotions that form the Limbic System. 

  • Hypothalamus – regulates hunger, thirst, response to pain, anger, and pleasure. It helps to maintain homeostasis or balance in the body and the Autonomic Nervous Symptom which regulates blood pressure, pulse, breathing, digestion, and emotional responses. The pituitary gland is intimately tied to the hypothalamus in releasing hormones.
  • Hippocampus – converts short-term memory to long-term memory, taking experiences and filing them for future use to help the body avoid danger or retrieve information quickly.
  • Amygdala – reacts to stimuli to create fear and anger for survival.

The Autonomic Nervous Symptom is divided into two parts: The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.  

  • Sympathetic – the Fight or Flight reaction that dilates pupils, opens eyelids, stimulates the sweat glands, dilates blood vessels in large muscles and constricts in the rest of the body, increases heart rate, opens lungs, and decreases digestion.
  • Parasympathetic – reverses the actions of the Sympathetic reactions and restores the body back to normal.

The Chemical Messengers – Hormones

With every action, there is a reaction. When the body receives stimuli, such as stress, danger, touch, etc. the body responds to its environment. Your brain uses hormones to tell the body how it needs to prepare to act. There are five main hormones that affect emotional responses:

  • Cortisol – known as the stress hormone. It is produced by the adrenal glands to let the body know it is under attack and starts the sympathetic nervous symptom into action.
  • Dopamine – regulates attention, learning and emotional responses.
  • Norepinephrine – increases blood pressure, heart rate and amount of blood pumping from the heart. It also breaks down fat, increasing blood sugar to create more energy for the body.
  • Serotonin – regulates mood, helps us with sleeping and eating, and manifests feelings of well-being.
  • Oxytocin – promotes feelings of trust and attachment – “the cuddle hormone.”

With just a 30-minute massage, dopamine and serotonin levels increase by 30 percent and norepinephrine and cortisol levels drop by more than 50 percent! 

Touch activates skin receptors, releasing oxytocin. When receiving a massage from a trusted professional, oxytocin levels can increase even more. Massage therapy can restore those emotions that are associated with reward and motivation, reducing more destructive behaviors that can lead to addiction.

A dopamine deficiency causes a decrease in motivation and inability to experience pleasure, most seen in depression. Depression and anxiety can also cause withdrawal from others emotionally and socially. Massage can help to reconnect to the outside world in a safe way. Experiencing emotional stress can cause us to disconnect from our own bodies; massage therapy can help with feeling more present and aware of that body-mind connection.

Understanding positive and negative emotions and how they manifest in your mind and body allows you to take back some control over your emotional responses. Massage can help you manage and recognize the symptoms of psychological stress.
Even if you do not have a positive experience with touch from your past, massage therapy can be a part of your healing by breaking down the barriers to your wellness through trust and self-care. While the lack of physical touch does not cause mental health disorders, the lack of touch can disrupt vital hormonal balance of cortisol and dopamine, which can play a role in feeling unloved. Seeking counseling along with a great massage therapist can help you recover and get back to feeling more like yourself.