One commonly hears of a dichotomy in massage therapy between therapy and relaxation. For example, when selecting the purpose of a massage, a client often specifies either “therapeutic massage” or “relaxation massage.” Therapy is for fixing problems, and relaxation is for feeling good, for at least a short while. Might relaxation, however, actually also be therapeutic? Several medical professionals say that it is in the following ways:
Relaxation can boost the immune system
Dr. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University showed that chronic stress increased a person’s risk of catching a cold. It appears that stress hampers the body’s ability to fight inflammation by making immune cells less sensitive to the hormone that “turns off” inflammation.
Relaxation can slow the aging process
A recent study revealed that anxiety disorders increase your risk of several aging-related conditions, possibly because of accelerated aging at the cellular level. However, this cellular aging turned out to be reversible when the anxiety disorder went into remission.
Relaxation can improve memory, concentration, and problem solving skills
One study found that, at least in mice, chronic stress impaired the memory and learning centers of the brain, as well as its ability to perform abstract thought and cognitive analysis. Relaxation may help with this by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Relaxation can decrease anxiety and depression
According to William B. Salt II., MD, “The regular elicitation of the relaxation response can result in a reduction in anxiety/depression and improvement in your ability to cope with stress.”
Relaxation can protect the heart
“There are studies to show that stress is comparable to other risk factors that we traditionally think of as major, like hypertension, poor diet and lack of exercise,” says Kathi Heffner, Ph.D. of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
The physiological state that can bring about these benefits is called the “relaxation response” by Dr. Herbert Benson of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Dr. Benson has said that “Just sitting quietly or, say, watching television, is not enough to produce the physiological changes. You need to use a relaxation technique that will break the train of everyday thought, and decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.” I maintain that the trance-like state achieved during a relaxation massage often induces is this very relaxation response.
A final note on cortisol
Several health professionals believe that the relaxation response provides its health benefits by decreasing the level of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, used to fuel the fight-or-flight instinct. Excessive cortisol can contribute to such problems as weight gain, muscle weakness and diabetes. A 2005 study found that massage therapy decreases cortisol by an average of 31%. A separate 2011 study, however, found that massage decreases cortisol, but by a statistically insignificant amount. Whether a relaxation massage helps by lowering cortisol or by some other means, its health benefits are well-documented. As the 2011 study went on to say, “[massage therapy has] well-established…beneficial effects on anxiety, depression, and pain”.