The Benefits of Massage Therapy (Part 4): It’s All Psychological

Good for the Body, Good for the Mind.

The last few entries in our series on the Benefits of Massage Therapy (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) introduced the holistic, body-healthy benefits of effective deep-tissue massage. We discussed how massage can support your musculo-skeletal systems, deliver nutrients through the blood stream more effectively, and promote good posture, and how good massage can eliminate toxins from your skin and reduce the prominence and appearance of wrinkles, scars, and puffiness under the eyes. Now, we will take a moment to retarget our focus on the most important factor in our overall wellbeing: our mind. In a world where “attitude is everything,” massage is the ultimate good-vibes promoter.

The science behind massage and psychology is a bit technical, but has been verified by numerous studies and is quite possibly the biggest benefit a massage can grant you. The beneficial effects a massage can have on your mind are tied to the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the hormone oxytocin.

Spacefilling model of oxytocin. Created using ...

A model of the hormone oxytocin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oxytocin is colloquially known as the “love hormone.” It plays a huge role in social recognition (it helps us recognize our friends and family), as well as pair bonding (feelings of closeness with another person) and maternal behaviors. Essentially, oxytocin is released when we feel safe and protected. Because massage is such a personal behavior and requires lots of trust, it is highly effective at stimulating oxytocin production. When our ancestors would massage each other to comfort one another and increase the strength of their social relationships, they were really helping each other produce oxytocin.

To this day, even when we receive a massage from a non-human (specifically, a massage chair), our brains still release oxytocin because our vestigial mind is associating the massage with protection and comfort. The effect of this hormone is very real, and very powerful: it gives people a calming sense of peace and tranquility, and has a powerful effect on stress. It reduces our anxiety and makes us feel – in a word – safe.

Massage Therapy Infographic

Massage Therapy Infographic via Mind Body Green.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is a major contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. People with high serotonin levels feel and appear happier than people with lower serotonin levels; high serotonin often leads to a more active lifestyle, and people with high serotonin tend to work in leadership roles. Serotonin also raises self-esteem, and can reduce the strength and duration of migraines – sometimes preventing them all together. And you already know where this is going: an effective massage will stimulate the production of serotonin.

In a study carried out tracking the moods of pregnant women suffering from depression, women who received massages twice a week saw their serotonin levels rise by 30%. That means that massage is one of the most effective means of improving serotoning levels, along with ample exercise, long exposure to sunlight, and meditating on happy memories.

Between serotonin and oxytocin, a good massage can give you long-lasting feelings of safety, comfort, belonging, happiness, and confidence. It is truly a great way to take your mind off the rigors and stress of your day, and feel cozy and warm and loved in your own skin.

This series is written by on behalf of Mike studied at UCSD and is a lifelong student of the sciences.

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