People often ask me if massage or bodywork can help with depression or anxiety. The short answer to that question is yes! In fact, I routinely see clients with depression, anxiety, and chronic pain in my practice.
“These conditions can and do often coexist, and it can be difficult to distinguish what came first. Anxiety and depression can be seen as two sides of the same coin, and chronic pain can be both the cause or result of depression.“
– Laura Lewis, RN, LMT | Director of Holistic Services – Alleviant Health Centers of Akron
But how? Well, I won’t make you suffer through too much science here, but a little lesson in physiology will help. Depression is commonly viewed as a biopsychosocial phenomenon. Simply put, there are biological, psychological, and social contributing factors that may lead someone to become depressed. To effectively treat depression, then, one would reasonably consider holistically addressing all three of those factors.
Today, I’d like to focus on the biologic changes that massage therapy can foster through stimulating the nervous system. You see, all the systems in our body are under the influence of the nervous system. The nervous system is king! Every thought, emotion, muscle contraction, or sensation is made possible due to the nervous system.
Our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is the command center where all incoming information is analyzed and processed. Our eyes, ears, taste buds, nose and special “touch” receptors in our skin and muscles are constantly giving our brain input known as stimulus, and the brain decides how to respond. For example, when special receptors in our skin, known as thermoreceptors, send information to the brain to alert the command center that our body temperature is elevated, the brain sends a signal to our glands to cause us to sweat.
So far it sounds pretty amazing, right? Some divisions of our nervous system, such as our muscles, can be controlled. We can choose to move our body when we want to. Other divisions of the nervous system are involuntary, meaning we cannot consciously control them. We cannot consciously force our hearts to beat or our intestines to digest food; those actions happen automatically.
Sometimes, when we need to fire up our organs, like during an exciting hockey game or an emergency, our brain triggers a “fight or flight” response. Our central nervous system sends the message to our glands and organs, our hearts race, and we start breathing rapidly, and our brain triggers a host of hormonal changes. This is known as the sympathetic division of our nervous system. Production of cortisol, sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, is heightened during these moments.
On the other hand, when we just want to chill and relax, digest food, repair our cells and tissue, and get some sleep, the command center releases different hormones that allow this “R & R” division of our nervous system to dominate. This is known as the parasympathetic division.
Ok, enough of the science. What, you may ask, does this have to do with massage therapy or depression? I’m glad you asked. In short, the goal of massage therapy is to coax the nervous system towards the parasympathetic:
And away from the sympathetic state:
Fight or flight mode
Several of the modalities that I use, including Bowen technique, specifically address the receptors in our skin, fascia, and tissue, to allow the parasympathetic system to take over, offering a holistic remedy for anxiety and depression.
Katya Turner is a brand strategist, marketing pro, photographer, intuitive coach, author, educator, and the Director of Marketing at Alleviant Health Centers. Through her work in personal & business development she helps people and brands shine, creating communities and bringing people together.