Anyone who has ever had a massage can probably attest to how good it makes you feel, both physically and psychically. So the assertion that massage is helpful in combating depression may seem intuitive. But of course, depression is more serious than simply being grumpy or having a bad day: clinical depression, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Medline Plus, “is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration interfere with everyday life for an extended period of time” (emphasis mine). In that light, claims of massage being beneficial in treating depression should not be made lightly.
But it would seem that there is a growing body of research to support this belief. A group of researchers from a university in Taiwan examined seventeen studies on depression and massage and concluded that, while further study is warranted, “massage therapy is significantly associated with alleviated depressive symptoms.” If you’re wondering how massage alleviates these symptoms, it may have to do with, at least in part, the apparent influence of stress.
Research suggests that stressful experiences might deplete such neurotransmitters as dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin modulates mood and emotion, while dopamine plays a role in emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Given the types of signals these chemicals transmit across the nervous system, it is easy to see how having less of them might lead to depression. Also, stress increases production of the hormone cortisol, not coincidentally often referred to as the stress hormone. Current research has found that high levels of cortisol are involved in the development of certain depressive disorders, though the mechanism for that development is as yet not understood.
When you get a massage, you can feel the stress melting away. But as you might have gathered by this point, this sensation is not simply psychosomatic. Studies that have analyzed blood and/or urine samples have found that dopamine and serotonin amounts went up and cortisol levels were lower following massage. In addition, massage causes the body to release oxytocin—also known as the “trust hormone”—which would give depression sufferers, among others, an enhanced sense of security.
Studies to date have not researched whether massage would have to be ongoing in order for the benefits to persist. But it’s almost impossible to get too many massages, so it certainly couldn’t hurt to err on the side of caution and get massages as often as time and budgets allow!
Anisman, Hymie, and Robert M. Zacharko. 1982. “Depression: The Predisposing Influence of Stress.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5:89–99.
Field, Tiffany, et al. 2005. “Cortisol Decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine Increase Following Massage Therapy.” International Journal of Neuroscience 115:1397–1413.
———. 2004. “Massage Therapy Effects on Depressed Pregnant Women.” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology 25:115–22.
Hou, Wen-Hsuan, et al. 2010. “Treatment Effects of Massage Therapy in Depressed People: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 71:894–901.
Sher, Leo. 2004. “Daily Hassles, Cortisol, and the Pathogenesis of Depression.” Medical Hypotheses 62:198–202.