Massage for Depression

Massage for depression or even a feeling of low energy can be improved with regular massages.

If you are feeling even a little anxious, massage therapy can help you, think of it as a preventive therapy, and enjoy the healing power of touch.

It is not a cure but it may help lessen some of your symptoms and support your recovery.

First, understand that depression is a real disease. It is a brain disorder - research has shown that the brains of depressed people look and behave differently from the brains of non-depressed people. Although the causes of depression are not well understood, most likely a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors are involved.

One area of research is the role of neurotransmitters in depression. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send messages between nerve cells (neurons). The three neurotransmitters most likely involved in depression are serotonin, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine. These neurotransmitters help control emotions, stress reactions, sleep, appetite, and sexuality. However, whether changes in neurotransmitter levels cause depression or depression causes changes in neurotransmitters is unknown. Possibly, it works both ways.

About Depression

Although people often use the generic term depression, the disorder comes in many forms. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally in their daily lives, while dysthymia is a milder, usually long-term, depression where a person can still function but probably isn't living a normal and full life. Another type of depression is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which usually affects people during the winter months, when there's less natural sunlight, though a few people experience SAD in the summer. Postpartum depression is when a new mother has a depressive episode, this usually occurs within a month after delivery.

While an overwhelming feeling of sadness is often a significant symptom of depression, the many other possible symptoms of depression vary depending on the type of depression and an individual's situation. Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Continual physical problems, such as aches and pains, headaches, or digestive problems that don't get better with treatment
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or helpless
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in life
  • Lack of sexual desire
  • Problems concentrating and making decisions.

The two most common treatments for depression are medication and psychotherapy. Another treatment used for SAD is light therapy - exposure to a strong artificial light that mimics sunlight. Typically, light therapy hasn't been used for other forms of depression, but a study published in the January 2011 Archives of General Psychiatry suggested that light therapy may help people with major depression.

How Massage for Depression May Help

Studies have long shown the importance of touch - babies die without touch. Lack of touch may even contribute to depression. So, using massage for depression may help you recover. And, a great benefit of massage is that it rarely has side effects, when received from a trained, qualified massage therapist.

First, dealing with depression can be quite stressful, and relaxation is one of the greatest benefits of massage. Depression can also create muscle tension and pain, problems that massage can also help with.

Beyond helping you relax, massage may cause the body to produce fewer stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, and may also increase the body's production of pain-killing endorphins and mood-altering serotonin. Studies conducted by the Touch Research Institute and others have shown:

  • People have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol immediately after massage.
  • Massage increases serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels, helping elevate a person's mood.
  • Massage, and touch in general, causes the body to release oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and promotes relaxation.

Although how these effects come about is not well understood, one possible explanation involves your skin and muscles containing many millions of nerve receptors that are linked to your nervous system. Touch in general, and massage in particular, can stimulate the nerve receptors, causing the release of chemicals in the brain.

Research does support the benefits of massage for depression. A review, Treatment Effects of Massage Therapy in Depressed People: A Meta-Analysis, published in the March 2010 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at 17 studies of massage for depression. The review's authors concluded that the studies suggested that massage therapy might significantly lessen symptoms of depression. The authors also noted that it's impossible to do the scientifically accepted double-blind studies and that there are no standardized protocols of massage for depression or how to rate the effects of massage on depression.

If you want to try massage for depression, always let your massage therapist know what's going on for you, and tell other healthcare providers that you are receiving massage.

For more about depression, visit the National Institute of Mental Health or the Mayo Clinic's Depression Self-Assessment

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