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The Best Massage Techniques for Mental Health

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It’s no secret that our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked. Maintaining good mental health can often help with managing physical ailments – and vice versa! Massage therapy is one way you can explore this connection further, with holistic healing properties that blur the lines between the emotional and the physical.

So, if you’re looking for a specific therapy that will aid you mentally as much as physically, you’re in luck! Here’s our take on the best massage techniques for mental health.

How can massage help your mental health?

It is, of course, important to note that massage therapy is not a replacement for important treatments, such as seeing a psychologist or taking a prescribed medication, but enjoying a relaxing massage can still do much to improve your overall mental health and wellbeing. Let’s take a look at some of the mental health-related issues that massage may be able to help with.

Less cortisol…

When we’re tense or in pain, the body releases more cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. High cortisol levels often show emotionally, through mood swings, anxiety, and irritability. Massage therapy can help reduce those levels by soothing away aches and pains and encouraging a calm and meditative mood.

… but more endorphins (and other happy hormones)

You’ve probably heard of serotonin, dopamine, or endorphins at some point in your life. But just in case your high school science classes aren’t quite flooding back, these are some of the hormones that promote positive emotions. They have physical functions too, with some travelling through our bloodstreams and others, known as neurotransmitters, working with our brain and central nervous system. Massage can help release these hormones, making you feel more relaxed and happier overall.

Relieving anxiety and depression

Given its ability to reduce cortisol levels while increasing those happy hormones, it probably comes as no surprise that several studies have found that regular massages helped alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression in many of their participants.

One such study, published in 2008, arranged for eight patients with diagnosed General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to receive massages. The study found that the relaxing procedure and focused attention from the practitioner ultimately decreased their anxiety and helped increase their self-confidence.

Building a routine around massage can also help, giving patients something to look forward to and adopt as part of a treatment plan. But choosing to book in a massage when a low unexpectedly hits might also be beneficial too, as it can provide a break from symptoms and a reminder of what feeling calm and centred feels like.

If you’d like to know more, we recently explored how massage can help with anxiety.

Pain management

It’s well known that a good massage can help loosen up tight muscles. It can even form part of a rehabilitation or recovery program following an injury. But for chronic pain sufferers, any therapy’s focus is likely on managing pain, rather than eradicating it altogether. This means that finding a massage technique that can reduce it, even a little, can go a long way.

One study (2014) found that fibromyalgia patients who committed to several weeks of regular massage appointments reported a reduction in pain, anxiety, and depression. The consistency of the appointments may have been a factor as much as the techniques used, as it would have not only helped reduce stress while keeping pain at a manageable level but gave patients something positive and calming to consistently look forward to.

Tackling insomnia

A good night’s rest is absolutely integral for keeping ourselves feeling happy and healthy. Lack of sleep can impair our mental focus and our concentration, leaves our bodies with less time to physically recover from the day, and can even lead to chronic illnesses – both physical and mental.

By improving blood circulation, reducing any distracting aches and pains, and promoting a positive and relaxed state of mind, massage may be able to help you drift off to sleep. Also, by encouraging the production of serotonin, massage can also help your body in the creation of melatonin – the hormone responsible for telling us it’s time to wind down and get ready for bed. Now you know why you might feel sleepy after a good massage!

A relaxing environment

And let’s not forget the experience as a whole. If you find a therapist who can put you at ease and who you feel comfortable with, the process is already off to a stress-free start – something that’s doubly important if you’re indulging in a therapy that might make you feel a little self-conscious. Add to that an aesthetically pleasing space, perhaps with some calming scents and a few plants, and you’ll be set for success!

And remember, the experience doesn’t end when the massage does. To get the most out of your massage, both physically and mentally, you’ll need to practise the appropriate aftercare – we’ve got a guide to managing your post-massage feelings right here.

Now, let’s move on to some of the best massage techniques for mental health.

The best massage techniques for mental health

Swedish massage

With a focus on relaxation and relief, it’s no surprise that Swedish massage is one of the most popular forms of massage therapy. Because of its gentle nature, it’s a great choice if you’re looking to specifically soothe mental woes, though it’s still great for relieving muscle tension and improving flexibility.

The key techniques of Swedish massage include effleurage (circular movements), petrissage (deep kneading movement), tapotement (tapping to stimulate blood flow), friction, and vibration.

Aromatherapy massage

An aromatherapy massage combines a regular massage with scented essential oils. They may be applied to the skin during massage or diffused throughout the room during the treatment.

A small study conducted in the early 2000s found that of a test group of eight patients, six of them had decreased levels of anxiety and depression after six weekly sessions of aromatherapy massage.

Suggested scents include chamomile or bergamot to help with anxiety, lavender to aid with sleep, and stimulating citrus oils like orange to boost low mood.

Hot stone massage

Believed to have originated in China some 2,000 years ago, hot stone massage has been used throughout the world. Smooth heated stones are placed on specific areas of the body, relaxing the muscles and allowing for a deeper massage, using techniques similar to those of Swedish massage.

It might feel a little counterintuitive to add heat to something meant to be relaxing – who hasn’t felt a little grouchy on a too-hot summer’s day? – but the combination of relaxed muscles, gentle massage, and soothing atmosphere can actually make for a very calming session. And, similar to a sauna, another form of pampering that uses heat, you might also benefit from improved blood circulation, and improved sleep.

Shiatsu massage

Originating in Japan, Shiatsu is a combination of traditional Chinese medicine and other therapies, including acupuncture and herbal remedies. Shiatsu is all about encouraging the body’s physical, mental, and emotional sides to work together in harmony. It’s based around the concept of ‘Qi’, our body’s natural energy, and ‘meridians’, the channels through which Qi flows. Our Qi can fall out of balance when we become ill – whether that’s mentally or physically – and by targeting specific points on the body, a Shiatsu practitioner aims to address that imbalance.

It’s easy to see on paper how Shiatsu might bridge that gap between the physical and the mental. Once you’ve enjoyed all the emotional benefits, you might also find it helps with relieving muscle pain and stiffness, reducing headaches, and improving overall energy.

Thai massage

One of the more energetic forms, Thai massage has a similar philosophy behind it as Shiatsu. Here those meridians are known as ‘sen lines’, and treatment requires much more active participation from the patient.

Lying on a mat on the floor, your therapist will guide you through a range of motions, including pulling, rocking, elbow and knee work, and stretching. This ‘assisted yoga’, as it is sometimes called, can help boost energy, improve flexibility, and reduce back pain.

Deep tissue massage

While it’s rooted in the traditions and techniques of Swedish massage, deep tissue massage goes, well, a little deeper. Your therapist will apply those same circular movements, deep kneading, tapping, friction, and vibration techniques but with much more pressure, reaching the inner muscle layers.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is anything but relaxing. In the moment, it may very well not be! But deep tissue massage often forms part of a large rehabilitation and healing process, and as the body heals, so too does the mind. If you suffer from chronic pain due to a sports injury, for example, it might be worth asking your doctor if they think deep tissue can help provide relief in any way – if the pain eases, you’ll likely be able to focus better, think more clearly, and generally be happier overall.

So, what is the best massage for mental health?

As is so often the case, the answer to this question all depends on the patient and the problem. While it’s important to remember that massage therapy should only form part of a treatment plan for any mental health issues, the associated mood boosts, pain relief, and relaxing environment could all play a strong role in helping someone manage their emotional well-being.

References

  1. Lydia Smith, 2021, “Can regular massages improve your mental health?”, Patient
  2. Cameron Aubrey, 2019, “How Massage Therapy Can Help Treat Mental Health Conditions”, Discover Massage Australia
  3. Brian Krans, 2019, “Massage Therapy for Depression”, Healthline
  4. Indigo Triplett, 2015, “5 Massage Therapies That Can Improve Your Mental Wellness”, Inc.
  5. Michelle Vallet, 2014, “Massage and Depression”, American Massage Therapy Association
  6. 2021, “Mayo Clinic explores: The role of massage therapy for mental health”, Mayo Clinic