Massage Therapy and Depression

One of the best-known benefits of massage therapy is its ability to enhance feelings of well-being and studies show promise in aiding those diagnosed with depression. Depression is a condition affecting millions of Americans. There are numerous causes and degrees of complexity, making it a challenge to treat effectively. Some triggers for depression are traumatic events that occurred recently or in the past, underlying mental disorders, seasonal changes, and physical issues. In fact, those who have been diagnosed with depression also have a higher incidence of physical health problems. Therapeutic massage can relieve chronic pain, resulting in a more positive emotional status.

Although the root causes are not fully understood, a physiological marker of depression is a low level of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for the transmission of nerve messages and helps to sustain feelings of well-being. Low levels of serotonin can cause difficulty coping with intense emotions in an appropriate manner, leading some people to act impulsively, behave aggressively, act on self-destructive urges and exercise poor judgment. Massage has been shown to elevate levels of serotonin, which is an important element in fighting depression.

Research into the effect of stress on depression has recognized the correlation between high levels of cortisol and reduced levels of serotonin. Cortisol is a hormone that is released during the ‘fight or flight’ response, and is one of the chemicals responsible for the short, powerful burst of energy that one receives in a crisis situation. Prolonged periods of stress increase the levels of cortisol found in the body. Cortisol is also responsible for reducing the amount of serotonin found within the system and adversely affecting its ability to act as an effective neurotransmitter. Therapeutic massage releases tension and promotes relaxation, which leads to an immediate and significant decrease in cortisol, sometimes by more than 40 percent.

The positive physiological benefit of massage makes it an effective compliment to the standard treatment of psychotherapy and prescription antidepressants. Since depressive symptoms can be as varied and complex as each patient, treatment is often a path of trial and error and there are no guarantees that a patient will respond positively to antidepressant therapy. While they are effective for many, there are still a large percentage of patients that have not found antidepressants to alleviate their depressive symptoms. One reason could be the inability of the medication to alter the patient’s brain chemistry. Another common reason is the slew of unpleasant side effects such as dry mouth, blurred vision, sedation, constipation, nausea and headache that cause discomfort and lead patients to abandon antidepressant therapy altogether.

For those who have not responded well to prescription antidepressants, there are alternative therapies that have been shown to garner positive results in treating mild to moderate degrees of depression. These therapies include acupuncture, animal-assisted therapy, aromatherapy, expressive therapy and touch or massage therapy. A recent study by the Touch Research Institute in conjunction with Duke University has proven massage to be effective in reducing cortisol levels while concurrently raising levels of serotonin both during and after a massage.

Massage also aids in pain reduction and enhances feelings of well-being. This is reflected by the marked increase of serotonin and dopamine levels found in the study’s participants. Serotonin levels were shown to have increased by as much as 38 percent, which effectively counteracts cortisol’s negative effects. Furthermore, the massage sessions lasted an average of 15-30 minutes, and were performed at regular intervals (generally 2-3 times a week) for a period of several weeks. These findings suggest that therapeutic massage can have similar success in treating low serotonin levels as do prescription antidepressants, and often has a more immediate effect.

Field, T., Morrow, C., Valdeon, C., Larson, S., Kuhn, C., & Schanberg, S.(1992). Massage reduces depression and anxiety in child and adolescent psychiatric patients. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 31, 125-131.

Field, T., Grizzle, N., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Massage and relaxation therapies’ effects on depressed adolescent mothers. Adolescence, 31, 903-911.

Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005) Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115, 1397-1413.

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