Massage Therapy and Anxiety/PTSD

Most people are familiar with the term “anxiety” because they either suffer from it themselves, or they know people who do. Why is there such a prevalence of anxiety related disorders today? Well, there are many factors that contribute to an individual developing an anxiety disorder, but the most common cause that I have seen in my 12 years of practicing massage is trauma.

Trauma is almost always related to: verbal/mental/sexual abuse, assault, sexual assault, loss of a loved one, car accidents, or any “traumatic event”. Symptoms of trauma are relative to the individual and are dependent on their coping skills. Some people never seek treatment from a psychiatrist or counselor after the traumatic event, which can severely delay the healing process, and any recommendation for adjunctive treatment to compliment the therapy the patient would receive.  Clients have been referred to me by their doctors or therapists, so their patients can have better outcomes through massage therapy.

So, how does massage really help patients that suffer from anxiety? Massage Therapy helps in many ways, but first we’ll get into the science of it, so everyone can understand just how beneficial it really is!

Sympathetic Nervous System vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is made up of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system which is our “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which slows our body down for processes and repair- such as digestion and rest. When you’re under stress, like when experiencing a traumatic event, your body releases hormones that produce the fight or flight response. In turn, your heart rate increases, blood pressure is elevated, and your rate of breathing increases as well. Some people in severe cases often present with PTSD symptoms when left untreated such as: hypervigilance, hyperarousal, disassociation, and intrusive thoughts.

What we accomplish through massage therapy is help calm down the sympathetic nervous system by stimulating the PNS and restore balance between the two systems through massage techniques. As a result, just a 60-minute massage can lower the body’s cortisol levels by nearly 30 percent! When cortisol levels decline, serotonin- one of the body’s anti-pain mechanisms- increases by an average of 28 percent. What does this mean? This means that your body has just gotten a boost in it’s ability to fight off pain, anxiety and feelings of sadness. 

Massage therapy has helped a many of my clients who suffer from anxiety and depression. And even depending on someone’s situation, sometimes they just need physical touch to help- kind of like when we were babies and needed to be held. Massage is like a nice long 60-90 minute hug for many of my anxiety and depression sufferers, and it helps aid in their recovery tremendously. If there are any of you reading this blog that suffer from anxiety or depression, please don’t hesitate to talk to your therapist about adding massage to your treatment protocol.

- Amanda Devaney, LMT