Most people get a massage in order to relax, perhaps a pleasurable way to unwind after a long work week. Others go to address some physical discomfort or injury. Maybe your lower back aches from sitting too much in front of a computer. Massage can be a sumptuous delight that treats your body’s aches and pains. Less well known is that it is an effective choice of treatment for a number of psychological issues: depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity, and posttraumatic stress, to name a few. This article addresses the general process by which massage benefits mental health with specific reference to treating depression.
After a massage, we may find our spirits have been lifted … that we’ve broadened our everyday perspectives. The opportunity is one for self-awareness. The benefit of massage on mental health is not a surprise if we think about the connection between the mind and body. The body is a miraculous manifestation that gives us direct access to unknown parts of ourselves. For instance, the body revealed by posture, muscle contraction, and flexibility demonstrates the sort of armour we use to protect ourselves in a sometimes difficult world. A depressed individual might tense up or constrict the stomach or back to make him or her less vulnerable to particular emotions. The massage therapist is as much a student of the mind as he or she is of the body. The massage therapist bears witness to our mounting stresses and vulnerabilities, and helps unblock the passageways that allow us to fully breathe in life. They soothe feelings of angst that cause depression and prevent us from connecting to our bodies and experiencing joy.
An observant massage therapist need only consult a client’s muscles to gain an understanding of his or her psychology. For instance, some individuals’ muscles may come across as more or less penetrable. A hardened collection of back muscles can serve as a force field, making it difficult to reach deeper layers of musculature. Such a force field is simultaneously physical as well psychological. Psychologically, it may represent a general distrust or impermeability to others. Granted, such armour can be invaluable in adapting to threatening situations. If the client is unaware of his or her “body armour,” the therapist has an opportunity to bring it to the client’s attention. With such awareness, the individual may choose to slowly “disarm” if he or she is carrying “unnecessary armour.” While massaging, the therapist may ask the client to “breathe into it,” which encourages the development of a deeper trust. Every point of contact on the body is an opportunity for self-awareness. Psychological healing occurs when we sink into the reality of our bodies.
Technological advances in communication can paradoxically leave many feeling more isolated and alone. When that happens, our life forces may dwindle. We communicate with greater numbers of people, via the Internet for instance, but there’s less direct contact and interaction. The mind and body become estranged from physical and emotional stimulation. You may then experience feelings of dissociation, depression, or a sense of detachment. What is needed is a return to a nurturing touch, both physically and emotionally. Depression can be seen as an estrangement from a caring world. The sense of being “held” in a massage awakens a feeling of being cared about, as the therapist’s focus is a kind of concentrated care for the client. Massage offers an opportunity for learning a different way of being. Your body may begin to realize that it doesn’t have to tense up so much when work gets stressful. If depression is the expectation that you will not receive the connection and nurturance that you need, a massage can rattle the rigid sense of isolation. Rigidity then dissolves. It liquefies into the stream of life.
By Stephen L. Salter, PsyD, as published GoodTherapy.org, April 2013