Touch can have a powerful positive emotional effect on a person. We touch each other to console, to show affection and to establish rapport–touch has been a vital part of communicating with others throughout human history. For an individual suffering from depression, this connection can be a wonderful first step toward the restoration of emotional balance and health.
Depression is a very serious condition which may strike any person at any time. There are various estimates, but it seems to be fair to say that about one in five women and one in ten men will fall prey to major, paralyzing depression at some time in life. Symptoms vary from one patient to another and frequently include sadness, sexual dysfunction, major changes in weight, appetite, energy level or sleep schedule. A depressed person may harbor recurring thoughts of suicide or death and feel worthless, hopeless, empty and inexplicably guilty. Depressed persons often turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to alleviate these symptoms.
There are a large number of potential triggers for depression. This condition was, until fairly recent times, considered to be entirely psychological. Recent research shows that depression actually has numerous components, including biochemical factors, potential genetic links and probably some subtle environmental components which may bring about or worsen the depression. Additionally, illness or life events may help to bring depression on or deepen its effects.
Many treatments are currently available to the depressed patient. In addition to medicines (such as Prozac), psychological and behavioral therapies, massage has many positive effects on depressed patients. A great deal of research is being conducted to determine to what extent massage may be used in order to attenuate some of the worst symptoms of depression.
Massage Works for Depressed Patients
Much of the mainstream medical community has traditionally rejected massage as a treatment for depression, but that attitude is changing. A growing body of medical research is beginning to lead to the conclusion that massage can have a powerful effect in reducing the symptoms of depression. The jury is still out as to how large a role massage can have in helping the depressed patient, but many physicians and psychologists are seeing massage as a useful tool to help the depressed patient.
As researcher Andrew Vickers has stated, while it is far too simplistic to say that massage can cure depression, it can certainly help the patient to better cope with it, and it can improve the patient's quality of life.
How Massage Can Help Alleviate Symptoms of Depression
People have believed in the healing power of touch for ages. In many traditional societies, laying on of hands is a vital part of the healing process. The skin and muscle tissues are densely packed with nerves which feed directly into the central nervous system (in fact, they develop from the same set of cells in fetal life). Many researchers feel that this intimate link between skin and brain gives a clue about the origin of the "power of touch."
Now, research is finding that premature babies who are held tend to grow more quickly and have fewer problems. Severely physically or mentally ill persons who are held or touched likewise tend to recover more quickly. Likewise touch therapies have been shown to be effective in aiding patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain disorders to name only a few.
The most obvious way in which massage can aid with symptoms of depression is that massage feels wonderful and, as previously stated, touch often has an uplifting effect on a person's mood. Massage also relieves pain, both by promoting the production of mood-enhancing biochemicals and also by improving circulation, loosening muscles and easing tightness in tense areas.
Very few people deny that there are important psychological factors at work in depression, working side-by-side with physiological and environmental elements to create and maintain the condition of depression. Since the overwhelming majority of clients find massage to be a soothing, relaxing and calming experience, regular massage therapy sessions may assist in slowing or even reversing the progress of depression. Nearly any kind of massage seems to work equally well, Swedish, deep tissue massage or sports massage with stretching added in. The most important thing seems to be that it should feel good.
Depression is frequently linked to physical discomfort–seemingly as cause and effect (this vicious cycle may begin with muscular pains triggering a depressive episode or, the seemingly more typical case, with depression exacerbating physical pain). Massage can help to break this pain-depression chain.
A fair number of other aids are available to those suffering from depression–exercise, aromatherapy, yoga, meditation and certain herbs (such as Saint John's wort) have all been shown to be of some use to many depression sufferers. Of course, these treatments alone are not usually enough, professional medical assistance is almost always needed in cases of depression.
If you (or someone you know) seem to be exhibiting symptoms of depression, it is a good idea to seek the advice of a qualified medical practitioner immediately. For more information about depression, please see associated nodes, softlinks and references.
Special thanks to Chras4 for kind words of encouragement.
Venes, Donald and Thomas, Clayton L., eds., Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, FA Davis Company, 19th edition, 2001.
Preshant, Lyn, "Normalizing the Grief; Healing Body/Mind Emotions," Massage and Bodywork Magazine, April/May, 2002.
Remedy Finder's Depression page http://remedyfind.com/hc-Depression.asp
International Federation of Aromatherapists Depression Resource - lots of info about managing depression through behavioural and aromatherapy:
Jensen, KM, "Alternative Therapies Go Under the Microscope," online at http://www.ahsc.arizona.edu/opa/horizons/2000/fall/pg12.htm
Evidence-based massage therapy by Edzard Ernst - a superb (but rather dry) review of some of the research that has been done on massage therapy in recent years. PDF format.
Medical Advances Improve Pre-term Babies' Chances for Survival by Dr. Brigitte Mihalyfi (The Medical Center at Princeton Friday, Jan. 27, 1998)
Cancer Research; The Benefits Of Aromatherapy And Massage In Palliative Care from Internet Health Library
Plus, several years of Massage Magazine's medical research columns, even as dull as they can sometimes be!