Do Massages Actually Reduce Stress?

Massage therapy has become an increasingly popular way for people to relax and relieve stress. But do massages actually help reduce stress levels, or are the benefits mostly psychological? Science suggests massages can have measurable positive effects on factors related to stress.

What is Stress?

Before looking at how massages impact stress, it helps to understand what stress is. Stress is the body’s response to perceived threats or demands. When we sense a threat, our body activates our sympathetic nervous system, often called the “fight or flight” response. This triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause physical changes like increased heart rate, tightened muscles, and spikes in blood pressure.

This response is helpful for dealing with immediate dangers. But when stress is chronic and stress hormones are constantly present, it puts a major strain on the body and mind. Chronic stress is linked to serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and more. With so many harmful effects, finding ways to effectively manage stress is extremely important.

How Do Massages Reduce Stress?

So how exactly might massages combat stress? Research points to a few key ways:

  • Lowers stress hormone levels – Studies show massage therapy can decrease levels of cortisol and adrenaline, signaling the body to come out of “fight or flight” mode. One study found a single 45 minute massage led to significantly lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of neurotransmitters that aid in reducing depression.
  • Activates parasympathetic nervous system – Massage has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. Activating this system brings balance by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and relaxing muscles – essentially the opposite bodily reactions triggered by the fight or flight response.
  • Increases blood flow – Massage increases circulation and blood flow throughout the body. Better blood flow can enhance delivery of oxygen and nutrients to tissues and help the body remove waste and toxins.
  • Releases natural painkillers – Massage encourages the release of endorphins, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that block pain signals and produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation.
  • Promotes mindfulness – Receiving a massage directs focus on the present moment and away from negative thoughts and ruminating. This mindfulness of physical sensations can have a meditative effect.

Benefits Beyond Relaxation

While massage is calming in the moment, studies indicate the benefits go well beyond short term relaxation. The positive effects massage has on heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones, etc. can linger in the days and weeks after a massage.

Regular massage therapy has been shown to:

  • Boost energy levels
  • Improve sleep
  • Increase focus and productivity
  • Reduce headaches and muscle pain
  • Increase circulation and improve mobility
  • Decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression

Massage also provides a safe non-pharmaceutical approach to stress management with virtually no downsides when performed by a licensed professional.

Finding the Right Massage

Of course, massages are not universally effective for everyone. Factors like the style of massage, technique, and therapist experience play a role. People also respond differently based on their unique needs, sensitivities, and medical history. But most find the sensory input from massage creates positive shifts both physically and mentally.

The massage method, pressure, and frequency should be tailored to individual needs and sensitivities. Open communication with a therapist is key to finding the right massage to reduce stress. Many people also find pairing massage with additional stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, improved sleep habits, and counseling helps enhance the stress relief benefits.

So while massage may not be a miracle stress cure, science indicates it can be an effective piece of an overall stress management plan for most people. Massage therapy provides a safe, non-invasive way to press pause on the strain of everyday stress.