Updated May 7, 2017
Mental illness is a pathology that affects many people. It can be especially frustrating for the patient because, unlike physical illness, there aren’t many obvious outward indicators that a sickness is present. Changes in attitude or suppressed personality are often dismissed by others as a bad day or a poor attitude. Because mental illness is so un-observable, many people who suffer are told to “suck it up,” “who doesn’t have problems?” and “get over it,” among other incredibly insensitive, contemptuous, comments.
Unfortunately, mental illnesses are very real, and the people who have them live with incredible day to day struggles.
The two most common mental illnesses in the United States are anxiety and depression. Eighteen percent of adults 18 and older have been diagnosed with anxiety, of which 22.8% of cases are classified as severe. In 2013, approximately 15.7 million adults aged 18 or older experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15-44, and is the cause of approximately two thirds of suicides.
Of the 14.8 million people in the United States with depression, only thirty three percent seek treatment. Likewise, of the 3.3 million people with anxiety, only thirty-seven percent seek treatment. This is unfortunate because both illnesses are highly treatable. In fact, eighty percent of patients treated for depression show improvement. Treatment options include psychotherapy, medication, exercise, electroshock therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or stimulation of the vagus nerve.
What if there was a complementary treatment for these serious illnesses that was innovative, proven, and much more enjoyable than other treatment options? Well, according to research lead by Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute of Miami, there is!
Tiffany Field has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and has lead and continues to lead many studies on the effects of massage on the human body at the Touch Research Institute. In her research, she has found that over a five week period, massage increased speed and accuracy on math computations in adults with anxiety. The study found that regular massage increases delta wave power, which is associated with non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). Likewise, there was a decrease in alpha and beta power, which are known to have a negative effect on a person’s ability to sleep well if overactive. This is good because difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is a common symptom of both depression and anxiety.
Regular massage was also shown to enhance the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity (ability to destroy targeted cells), which can be decreased in people with depression. Over a period of five weeks, recipients of two 30-minute massages per week showed lower levels of cortisol, which is the stress steroid associated with anxiety. Cortisol decreases the body’s ability to release substances that cause inflammation, which can have a negative impact on the ability to fight off foreign substances.
Pregnant women who received massage in tandem with breathing exercises reported decreased depression, anxiety, and pain. In addition, they also showed less agitation and anxiety, and a more positive outcome during labor. They also had shorter labor times and hospital stays, and less postpartum depression.
These are only a few of the studies done by the Touch Research Institute, but there are more, and each proves that massage is beneficial in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Massage provides a quiet setting, and a much needed break from the overwhelming reality of our daily lives. It provides the client with an hour that is all about them, their comfort, their needs, and their relaxation.
Of course, massage should never be used as a sole treatment for depression. Massage therapy is not an alternative form of medicine, it is only complimentary. It should never be relied on exclusively; instead it should be used in conjunction with treatment prescribed by your doctor.
Check out the links below for more information!
National Institute of Mental Health
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
Field, T., Ironson, G., Scafidi, F., Nawrocki, T.,Goncalves, A., Burman, I. , Pickens, J., Fox, N., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (1996). Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. International Journal of Neuroscience, 86, 197-205.
Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Taylor , S., Quintino, O., & Burman, I. (1997). Labor pain is reduced by massage therapy. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, 18, 286-291.
Field, T., Grizzle, N., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Massage and relaxation therapies’ effects on depressed adolescent mothers. Adolescence, 31, 903-911.
Ironson, G., Field, T.M., Scafidi, F., Hashimoto, M., Kumar, M., Kumar, A., Price, A., Goncalves, A., Burman, I. , Tetenman, C., Patarca, R. & Fletcher, M.A. (1996). Massage therapy is associated with enhancement of the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity. International Journal of Neuroscience, 84, 205-217.