Let’s be honest: who doesn’t love a massage? If you’ve ever had a spa day, you’ll know a full body massage is the ultimate in pampering luxury, while a sports massage is the perfect remedy for post-workout aching limbs.
But aside from the obvious physical benefits, what is it about massage that makes you feel so good? And most importantly, how can you reap the benefits if you’re not in the position to get a professional massage right now?
We talk to Sarah Jane Watson, wellbeing expert and massage therapist and Carrelyn Gardner, massage therapist at Rejuvenate Massage Therapies, about the mind-body benefits of massage and how to employ self-massage techniques at home:
The importance of human touch
If you've ever gone without a hug from a loved one for any length of time, you'll know how important human touch can be. ‘Touch plays a vital role in our health, and studies show that both social connection and touch broadly shape biological responses and behaviours that impact our overall wellbeing,’ says Watson. ‘Touch brings about feelings of reassurance and safety that were first developed during our infancy, through the loving touch of our mothers.'
What's more, therapeutic touch through massage therapy has a calming and balancing effect of the nervous system. 'When massage is applied to the body, the nerves and sensory receptors are stimulated and messages are sent along the nerve pathways via the spinal cord to the brain, affecting the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down body activity, such as reducing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure,' says Watson.
'Oxytocin is the main hormone and neurotransmitter connected with touch, and research has found that it contributes to levels of relaxation, trust and psychological stability, as well as reducing stress responses such as anxiety.’
Massage and wellbeing
Massage is purported to help with other aspects of our mental health, too – even alleviating mild to moderate depression.
‘Research shows that massage therapy is indeed a therapeutic modality,’ says Gardner. ‘The science behind massage treatment on our bodies shows that our stress hormone, cortisol – our fight or flight hormone – decreases during treatments, while serotonin – the hormone that affects how we feel – is increased by an average of 28 per cent after massage.'
'This rebalancing of the biochemistry in our bodies during and post massage treatments is how feelings of anxiety, stress and even mild depression can be greatly reduced using this method,’ she adds.
Massage and mind-body connection
As well as helping to regulate hormones, Gardner says the unique way in which massage promotes the mind-body connection is also highly beneficial for our mental and emotional wellbeing.
‘Massage is invaluable to facilitating reconnection between the mind and body,’ she says. ‘By giving our minds the time to think about only our bodies – every specific area the therapist is working on, from our head to our toes – as well as focusing on our breathing during a treatment, we are able to calm our minds and meet with our inner peace, rebalancing the body’s natural energy flow while feeling completely reconnected with our physical self.’
The mental health benefits of massage include:
Alleviated depression (mild to moderate)
Increased sense of relaxation
Elevated mood and increased positivity
Massage and sleep quality
If you regularly struggle to get a good night's sleep, you'd be wise to consider massage therapy. 'Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling irritable and exhausted, and has been linked to physical problems, such as a weakened immune system and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression,' says Watson. 'Massage can directly influence the body's production of serotonin and the creation of melatonin, both of which are needed to promote a good night’s sleep.’
The benefits of improved sleep are tenfold. 'Improved sleep is essential to our health as eating, drinking and breathing,’ says Watson. ‘It allows our bodies to repair and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information, as well as playing a significant role in maintaining both physical and mental health.'
But when it comes to mental health, are all massage techniques created equal? While any massage therapy will be beneficial, Watson recommends the following to specifically promote good mental wellbeing:
✔️ Swedish massage
The long flowing rhythmical strokes of Swedish massage help to relieve tension, induce deep relaxation and help promote a sense of wellbeing.
✔️ Aromatherapy massage
Using the healing properties of essential oils, aromatherapy massage is particularly suited to stress-related conditions, or conditions with an emotional component.
✔️ Shiatsu massage
This form of Japanese bodywork uses localised finger pressure in a rhythmic sequence on acupuncture meridians. Each point is held for two to eight seconds, to improve the flow of energy and help the mind and body regain balance.
Self-massage: a how-to guide
But what if you’re not in the position to head out for a professional massage right now? The good news is self-massage techniques are also a wonderful way to incorporate the benefits of massage into your daily routine. Try these self-massage tips from the experts, to help you reap the benefits of massage daily by yourself:
Face, neck and scalp massage
The scalp is full of pressure points that can effectively reduce stress levels and face, neck and scalp massage can have a positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces calm and relaxed feelings in the mind and body, says Watson.
Gardner has the following tips for self-massaging these areas:
Try neck stretches: drop your chin slowly to your chest for a minute or two, then raise slowly.
For a facial massage: use acupressure points on the face while applying your evening moisturiser. Using your thumb and index finger, start at your inner eyebrow and gently squeeze, moving along the eyebrow. Massage the temples either side of your head. Then give yourself a scalp massage.
Your ears might not be an area you immediately associate with massage, but gently squeezing your ear lobes can feel good. ‘A gentle pull and rub of the ear lobes stimulates the nerve endings that lead to the release of endorphins,’ says Watson.
Your hands are hardworking and often neglected, so show them a little love with a quick massage. ‘The hands are extremely responsive to touch, having a total of 17,000 touch receptors and free nerve endings in the palms,’ says Watson. ‘Massaging the hands releases serotonin in the brain, which will lead to a better night’s sleep.’
Back and shoulder massage
The muscles in your upper back and shoulders can get knotted and uncomfortable, whether you do a physical job or whether you’re hunched over a screen all day. Releasing all of this unwanted tension with massage can feel wonderful. Gardner recommends the following:
To realign your spine: sit straight, lengthening the spine and abdomen.
To stretch the back and shoulder blades: allow your body to lower down over your knees, head hanging and arms hanging to either side of the legs.
Try rotating your shoulders: use your fingers to pull up your back and across your shoulder on both sides.
Use your fingers: along the top of the shoulders, to find the bunching of contracted muscle fibres.
Ask for help: employ a family member or friend to smooth along the shoulders and up the neck towards the base of the skull (the occipital ridge). This will feel amazing and you can take turns.
Massaging your legs from top to bottom can help to improve circulation, as well as contributing to feelings of relaxation in both body and mind.
Starting from the top, massage your hips and thighs using the base of your hands for deeper pressure using long, fluid strokes.
For your calf muscles, interlace your fingers across the shin and, using the heels of both hands either side of the head of the muscle, move up and down, squeezing each section.
Last updated: 20-11-2020
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