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The Role of Massage in Treating Mental Health Conditions

In today’s society, many people suffer from differing levels of mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Of those suffering from mental illness, approximately 20.9 million Americans report experiencing mood disorders such as depression, while approximately 40 million suffer from an anxiety disorder.

As the mental health epidemic continues to grow throughout the country, people are turning to traditional medication treatment options as well as seeking positive outcomes from total mind and body approaches such as massage therapy.

“Anxiety and depression are the most common mental conditions we see treated with massage,” explains Maria Geisbert, LMT. “Basically, anything where there is a need for relaxation and stress relief, massage is going to help. In mental disorders where there’s a lack of serotonin and dopamine, massage can help with that as well.”

Moving from Physicality to Mentality

A shift in mindset is moving people into realizing that massage isn’t only for relieving physical pains or as an indulgence while on vacation. Statistics from the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) show that massage is seen as a treatment for total mind and body health as 88 percent of people view massage as beneficial to overall health and wellness.

“Massage is more than a luxury – it’s a healing modality on a physical, mental and spiritual level,” explains Hannah McClure, LMT. “It helps in all aspects of our life. As time progresses, people are starting to see and accept that more. But, many people still need to understand that regular treatments are so therapeutic both physically and mentally.”

According to the AMTA, various research has shown the benefits of using massage to help treat mental health conditions in different types of situations. Some of the highlights of the research that links therapeutic massage with positive mental outcomes include:

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reported that massage therapy can reduce symptoms of depression for individuals with HIV.

Applied Nursing Research reported that massage therapy given during chemotherapy can significantly reduce anxiety and acute fatigue.

Military Medicine published research that indicated significant reductions in ratings of anxiety, worry, depression and physical pain after military veterans received massage, as well as declining levels of tension and irritability.

Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice reported on research that found that massage for nurses during work hours can help reduce stress and related symptoms, including headaches, shoulder tension, insomnia, fatigue and muscle and joint pain.

Power of Touch Complements Mental Health Treatments

The traditional treatment for many mental illnesses typically includes taking an assortment of medications to balance out hormone levels and stimulate the nervous system. Through the power of touch, massage has evolved into an additional treatment option for mental health conditions by reducing cortisol and adrenaline, as well as increasing serotonin and dopamine to reduce anxiety depression.When the stress hormone cortisol was measured before and immediately after a massage, researchers from the University of Miami School of Medicine have found that the therapy lowered levels by up to 53 percent. Industry research such as this continues to point toward massage therapy as an effective approach to positively affecting the body’s biochemistry in order to treat mental health ailments such as anxiety and depression, as well as complement traditional medical treatments.

Slow, Steady Approach Leads to Greater Results

Massage should be an amazing, wonderful experience and not something that causes stress or nervousness. However, when seeking massage for mental health issues, a client may have issues with touch, darkness or being in a small space such as a massage room. As such, it’s important for therapists to thoroughly review a client’s condition prior to the session, while clients need to be forthcoming with disclosing appropriate information as it relates to their condition and their feelings on the overall massage experience.

If there are any apprehensions about the session, it may be a good idea to start gradually with a basic Swedish massage during a 30-minute session.

“As a therapist, you want to be very aware of your clients’ conditions,” explains Geisbert. “You want to make sure they feel comfortable and that a massage isn’t going to make them nervous, cause a panic attack or create an adverse reaction. It’s important to start small and then go forward from there, especially with someone who is already nervous or stressed out.”

Identifying Need Key to Proper Treatment

Although people are more proactive today with their health and more familiar with looking into preventative and alternative treatment options, there still is a much work that needs to be done to educate the public on the benefits of massage for mental health conditions.

One of the biggest challenges of using massage to treat people with mental health ailments is encouraging clients to be comfortable with discussing their condition with their therapist. Geisbert believes that some people may feel embarrassed or ashamed to discuss their mental health as the topic can still be seen as taboo in our society and they are unsure about how massage can help. She tries to overcome this challenge by being diligent with asking questions pertaining to mental health prior to appointments with her clients so she can make sure she’s addressing all of her clients’ physical and mental needs.

“People may see asking for help as a sign of weakness. But really it can actually make you stronger,” Geisbert says.

Massage can be a powerful tool for combating the increasing presence of mental health conditions in our country. If you or a loved one has mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, talk to your doctors and a certified massage therapist to see how massage can fit into your overall treatment plan.

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