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Massage + Depression
We’ve all had days where we feel sad or blue. Nobody can be happy all of the time, and changes in mood, feelings of sadness sometimes, are perfectly normal. For some people, however, these feelings are more persistent and severe, interfering with everyday activities, lowering energy levels and interrupting sleep, for example.
When these feelings begin to take over and noticeably change a person’s quality of life, seeing a mental health professional—and getting a depression diagnosis—can be the first step in getting the help they need.
For many who suffer, the solution most talked about is psychotherapy, where a person sees a trained mental health professional to talk (and perhaps be prescribed medication). But that approach doesn’t always work equally well for everyone.
Now, people are also beginning to better understand how a combination of treatment options can be beneficial, and massage therapy is showing some promise in helping people better handle depression.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things about depression when talking about ways to help people who suffer is that arriving at a simple, straightforward definition of depression is next to impossible. Depression, unlike some other medical conditions, is seemingly fluid in nature, meaning the cause(s) and how symptoms manifest are often unique to the individual and can be a secondary complaint of another primary health condition, such as Alzheimer’s, for example, or other mental health issues. In other words, my depression isn’tyour depression isn’t someone else’s depression.
That’s not to suggest, however, that there aren’t guidelines around diagnosing depression. Some people might think that depression is simply someone who is sad, but there’s a lot more to this condition than simply feeling down. Yes, sadness and unhappiness are definitely indicators of depression but, according to the Mayo Clinic, so are anger and irritability, loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, cognitive problems, as well as physical pain, such as back pain or headaches.
There can also be different types of depression. For example, some women experience depression both during pregnancy and after delivery, while other people may be affected seasonally or have anxiety that accompanies the depression.
The Benefits of Massage for Depression
When you ask exactly how massage therapy works to benefit people with depression, the most accurate answer is “we don’t yet know.”
But that’s not to say the benefits aren’t real, and some, like Christopher Moyer, PhD and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, posit that massage therapy may work in similar ways as psychotherapy. “The size and effect of massage therapy on trait anxiety and depression is virtually the same as that routinely found in the research studies of psychotherapy for those same conditions,” he explains. “Typically, both take place in a private setting and are based on a ‘50-minute hour’for the length of the session. Repeated sessions on a weekly schedule—or similar—wouldbe a traditional or common pattern when the goal is long-term reduction of anxiety or depression.”
The other striking similarity is that both are dependent on an interpersonal relationship founded on trust. “Some psychotherapy researchers think that the existence of the trusting relationship—sometimes referred to as the therapeutic bond, or as the working alliance—isthe most important component of psychotherapy’s effectiveness,” Moyer says. “And the same may also be true for massage therapy, though this is something that needs to be researched.”
Remember, too, that depression isn’t just mental health issues—some of the symptoms manifest physically, too. “Depression is considered a mental illness, but one feels it in the body as well, a sense of heaviness in the corporeal,” says Alice Sanvito, a massage therapist and owner of Massage-St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. “The physical experience of massage can change the physical sensation of heaviness to something lighter and can restore the feeling of living in one’s body again instead of being lost in one’s head.”
Moyer suggests something similar. “It’s tempting to say that yes, psychotherapy ought to have the greater potential to help because it ought to provide the person with skills and insight that reduce anxiety and depression, and that help the person avoid them in the future,” he explains. “And who is to say that massage therapy doesn’t do something similar to that? It’s possible that receiving massage therapy gives a person a kind of insight, in that it reeducates the person as to how their body and mind ought to feel when they are relaxed, healthy, less anxious and less depressed.”
There’s also the potential that—similar to chronic pain—some of the value of massage therapy for people with depression comes from interrupting the pattern of symptoms on a regular basis. “Each time one interrupts the pattern and experiences calm, it’s easier to remember what it’s like to live in a more normal state, gives one hope that it is possible,” Sanvito suggests.
The problem, however, is defining what regular means. Although research seems to suggest that more than one massage therapy session is more beneficial for people dealing with depression, beyond that, the information available gets fuzzier. “We do not yet have clear information on how many sessions of massage therapy, or in what pattern or frequency, are optimal or necessary,” Moyer explains. “Weekly sessions would be a good place to start. Then, depending on the response to treatment, that schedule could be adjusted as deemed necessary.
MEDITATION 101: TECHNIQUES, BENEFITS, AND A BEGINNER’S HOW-TO
Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single point. This could entail following the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong, or counting beads on a mala. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner might meditate for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations.
In this form of meditation, you simply refocus your awareness on the chosen object of attention each time you notice your mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, you simply let them go. Through this process, your ability to concentrate improves.
Mindfulness meditation encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get involved with the thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises.
Through mindfulness meditation, you can see how your thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time, you can become more aware of the human tendency to quickly judge an experience as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. With practice, an inner balance develops.
In some schools of meditation, students practice a combination of concentration and mindfulness. Many disciplines call for stillness — to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the teacher.
OTHER MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
There are various other meditation techniques. For example, a daily meditation practice among Buddhist monks focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This involves envisioning negative events and recasting them in a positive light by transforming them through compassion. There are also moving meditation techniques, such as tai chi, qigong, and walking meditation.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response” after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Since then, studies on the relaxation response have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:
Lower blood pressure
Improved blood circulation
Lower heart rate
Slower respiratory rate
Lower blood cortisol levels
More feelings of well-being
HOW TO MEDITATE: SIMPLE MEDITATION FOR BEGINNERS
This meditation exercise is an excellent introduction to meditation techniques.
Make no effort to control the breath; simply breathe naturally.
Focus your attention on the breath and on how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly. Simply focus your attention on your breath without controlling its pace or intensity. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath.
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