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Words of Wellness

Massage + Depression

Massage + Depression

Michelle Vallet

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 this condition.

Defining 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’t your 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

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—would be 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—is the 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’sbody 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.

Vallet, Michelle. "Massage + Depression." — American Massage Therapy Association. N.p., 28 May 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2015.

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