Massage and Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults and costing more than $42 billion a year.

Feelings of anxiety, worry and fear related to significant and challenging events are justified and very common. While it’s true, mild anxiety may leave a person feeling unsettled, severe anxiety can be debilitating. Anxiety is used as a general term for several disorders that have common symptoms – such as nervousness, worrying, apprehension and fear.

Anxiety disorders can be classified into several more specific types. The most common types include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by unrealistic, persistent and excessive worry about everyday things. People with this disorder often expect the worst and experience exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is no apparent reason for concern.

Panic Disorder involves brief or sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension that leads to shaking, confusion, nausea, dizziness and difficulty breathing. Panic attacks tend to arise abruptly and seemingly out-of-the-blue. The sudden onset often produces increased anxiety that a panic attack will recur. The individual often becomes preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack.

Phobia is an irrational fear and avoidance of an object or situation. Phobias commonly focus on flying, bridges, insects, heights, dental or medical procedures and elevators. Having phobias can disrupt daily routines, reduce self-esteem, limit work efficiency and put a strain on relationships.

Social Anxiety Disorder is a fear of being negatively judged and scrutinized by others in social or performance-related situations. Different variations of this type of anxiety include a fear of intimacy, stage fright and a fear of humiliation. People suffering from this disorder can sometimes isolate themselves in an attempt to avoid public situations and human contact.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when unwanted or intrusive thoughts make an individual feel compelled to repeat certain behaviors or routines. Even when the OCD sufferers know the irrationality of their compulsions, they feel powerless to stop them. For example, they may obsessively wash their hands, clean personal items or constantly check light switches locks or stoves.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is anxiety that results from previous trauma such as military combat, rape, a natural disaster, a serious accident or other life-threatening events. Most people who experience such events recover from them, but people with PTSD continue to be anxious and severely depressed for months or even years following the event. They often experience flashbacks and behavioral changes in order to avoid certain stimuli.

How does massage therapy help?

Massage therapy not only helps to release tension in the muscles, but also has a physiological effect on the brain chemistry. Massage encourages the release of neurotransmitters that activate the parasympathetic nervous system bringing the body and mind into a more relaxed state.

A recent Japanese study conducted in 2012 on the effects of a hand massage showed that the subjects’ heart rates went down significantly resulting in increased activity of the autonomic nervous system, improved activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, and reduced activity of the sympathetic nervous system aka (the fight or flight mechanism.) This study also measured anxiety levels and found a significant decrease in anxiety following the massage and also an increased willingness to communicate and connect with the caregiver.

Massage therapists can provide a safe and supportive compliment to an individual’s mental health care plan. When providing massage for individuals with psychological disorders, especially anxiety, it is important to maintain clear boundaries, be sensitive to the individual’s needs and condition, and provide a safe and nurturing environment.

What types of massage are beneficial?

The following types of massage can help relieve some symptoms of Anxiety:

  • Swedish massage helps to activate the parasympathetic state.
  • Shiatsu calms the mind, nerves, and reduces tension.
  • Reflexology stimulates points that release blockages in the lymphatic and endocrine systems.

What can you do?

Anxiety has profound effects on the sufferer and their loved ones which is why it is important to understand the different types of anxiety disorders and treatment options. Regular massage is not a stand-alone treatment option for anxiety disorders, but it can certainly compliment your current treatment plan. If you or someone you know suffers from an anxiety disorder, contact a massage therapist today.


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