A new study finds that massages may actually help treat anxiety and other mental health
disorders, like depression, due to their ability to reduce cortisol and anxiety symptoms.
The researchers conducted a randomized study that focused on patients who had generalized
anxiety disorder (GAD). People with GAD experience constant anxiety, with fearful and worrisome
thoughts clouding their mind at all hours of the day—often for weeks or months on end. Unable to
escape these worrying thoughts, GAD sufferers will often feel drained, fatigued, or develop long-
term stomach pain or muscle tension.
While GAD is typically treated with antidepressants or other meds, as well as cognitive behavioral
therapy, the researchers wanted to see if touch could have an impact on the disorder. In the
study, the participants were divided into two groups. One was given Swedish massage therapy
twice a week, and the other was given light touch therapy twice a week, all over the course of six
weeks. Each therapy session was 45 minutes long, and were carried out in the same room
conditions. Before and after the session, the participants self-reported on how they felt.
Swedish massage therapy—which involves the more traditional, deep-tissue massaging you’re
used to—appeared to be the most effective in reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms, the
researchers found. Light touch therapy—the practice of gently placing hands on different parts of
someone’s body to “release energy”—meanwhile, didn’t show as much of an effect on the
participants’ anxiety levels.
“These findings are significant and if replicated in a larger study will have important ramifications
for patients and providers,” said Dr. Mark Hyman Rapaportin in a press release.
Why do massages work so well in helping manage stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental
health issues? Past research has come to similar conclusions: For example, a 2010 study found
that massages could boost the immune system, and other studies found that massages improve
sleep quality. We know that both sleep and immune function play a role in mental health.
But perhaps it all comes down to the importance of touch and intimacy in human emotional,
physical, and mental well-being. Research has shown the frequent touches—like hugs, caresses,
massages, or kisses—can help foster bonds between people, improve immune system function,
decrease heart rate and blood pressure, and overall improve emotional well-being. In addition to
the purely physical benefits of massages (lowering cortisol and relaxing muscle tension), they can
also provide similar results as exercise or meditation: A release of endorphins that create a happy
“buzz,” improved sleep, and sharper mind.