Depression and Massage

depression1Massage therapy is being used more and more to work with conditions such as Depression and for a good reason:  The strongest evidence we have in massage research shows that massage has a significant impact on these conditions and because stress and anxiety are also known to be the cause of other health conditions.

While massage therapists are not psychotherapists, massage might help people even more than talk therapy according to research a Meta Analysis of Massage Therapy Research. by Christopher Moyer

“Reductions of trait anxiety and depression were MT’s largest effects, with a course of treatment providing benefits similar in magnitude to those of psychotherapy”

Depression is a term used to classify a group of disorders that causes debilitating changes to one’s emotional state. It is often described in many ways such as:

  • feelings of hopelessness
  • fatigue/lacking energy or motivation – not being able to get out of bed or off of the couch
  • sleeplessness, restlessness
  • lost of interest in people and in activities
  • feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • thoughts of ending own life or not taking care of one self when sick
  • aches and pains throughout the body
  • digestive issues
  • overeating/under-eating
  • weight gain/weight loss
  • lack of focus or drive

There is a really good book  Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky with a description of depression. He classifies depression as “a genetic-neurochemical disorder requiring a strong environmental trigger whose characteristic manifestation is an inability to appreciate sunsets.”

Depression is a whole body illness that affects the nervous system, moods, thoughts and behavior as well as sleep patterns, eating habits and your ability to respond and act in your life.   Symptoms of depression include chronic fatigue, insomnia, sleep problems, headaches, backaches, digestive disorders, restlessness, irritability, loss of interest in relationships and life, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.   A person with depression may be chronically angry or sad or go to the other extreme of having no emotions at all.

Causes of Depression

The causes of depression are wide and varied and not very well understood.  It may be triggered by stressful events, chemical imbalances, poor diet, allergies, thyroid and other hormone disorders, hypoglycemia and some hereditary and social conditioning factors. It can just be genetic and run in the family. There is the depression that occurs after the death of a loved one or the birth of a baby. Depression comes in all shapes, sizes and forms.

There are many levels or degrees of depression and different types of depression that I won’t go into here but it is enough to mention that depression is a vary complex situation.  It can range from annoying to life threatening.  It can be mild, moderate or downright overwhelming.

We don’t really know why or how massage helps depression but there are many theories.  Touch is just one of the most basic ways of soothing whatever ails you.  When we touch, we are touched back meaning massage/touch is a two way street.  Both parties are engaged in the process.  When we perform a massage technique on a client, they don’t really know what technique we are doing.  All they know is that it feels good (for the most part!).  It is through touch that we get to know ourselves better.  We learn we are human.

It seems massage may offer benefits similar to psychotherapy when it comes to decreasing anxiety and depression, an exciting find says Christopher Moyer, whose research recently appeared in Psychological Bulletin (January 2004). But just to be clear Moyer’s findings do not suggest the substitution of massage, as a stand-alone modality, in place of professional psychological or medical treatment for these conditions. “We may find it is a good complement for (treatment of) depression,” he says, especially in combination with other forms of care.

Resources for learning more about massage for depression:

AMTA position paper on massage and depression.

Depression and the Stress Response System: Part I of III By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB  Part II , Part III


Treating Depression with Massage By Don McCann, MA, LMT Massage Today

Massage therapy for the treatment of depression: a systematic review. Coelho, Boddy, Ernst Pub med Study

Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine By Lynda W. Freeman Google Books

Entry level Analysis Project (ELAP) (PDF) recommendations for working with depression with massage therapy

Affective Massage Therapy by Christopher Moyer in the International Journal of Massage and Bodywork

Statics on Mental health disorders from the National Institute for Mental Health

 CDC statistics on Depression