“Have you noticed that when you put your attention on a feeling (really feel it without trying to make it go away) it shimmers and dissolves?”- Katie & Gay Hendricks


“As we begin to re-experience a visceral reconnection with the needs of our bodies, there is a brand new capacity to warmly love the self. We experience a new quality of authenticity in our caring, which redirects our attention to our health, our diets, our energy, our time management. This enhanced care for the self arises spontaneously and naturally, not as a response to a ‘should.’ We are able to experience an immediate and intrinsic pleasure in self-care.” – Stephen Cope


The human condition, alone, is anxiety-provoking. Our lives are defined by uncertainty, lack of control, the unavoidability of suffering, and ultimately our impermanence. Add to that the precariousness of modern life; for example we are dependent on economic and food systems that can suddenly collapse due to a virus or bad weather. The speed at which we live is inhuman and leaves little room for self-care to say the least. Lastly, the social pressure to appear undaunted by all of this is extreme. Our culture pretends that we have and are, ourselves, limitless resources. Death is not an option.

It is no wonder that anxiety is one of the most common mental health diagnosis’ in the U.S., with “over 40 million adults” diagnosed (NAMI). A research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine reflects this, listing statistics from “An earlier government report, from 2011, [which] found that just over one in 10 adults reported taking prescription drugs for ‘problems with emotions, nerves or mental health’;” and a study by Thomas Moore and Dr. Donald Mattison found that “8.3 percent of adults were prescribed drugs from a group that included sedatives, hypnotics and anti-anxiety drugs.” For many people, these medications are at least the difference between a functioning and non-functioning life, and, at most, the difference between life and death. Thank goodness they are an option.

And still, no one likes to feel dependent on medication. This likely stems from our natural difficulty with accepting there’s something “wrong” (our bodies aren’t doing what they’re “supposed” to) with us as well as the stigma that goes with mental illness. We also want to feel the freedom of not having to rely on anything to be functional. And, there are often really frustrating side-effects from medications. Those who decide to take medication usually grapple with the decision repeatedly, which can lead to going on and off a regime multiple times. When medications are necessary, many find they have to remind themselves over and over that taking medication is not a weakness, but rather, most of the time, a very courageous, life-claiming act.

Perhaps it is a delusional daydream, but I like to imagine that, if we went back to our beginnings as human beings, when we lived slower, tribal lives, with a built-in network of support, we could heal differently from anxiety. A whole community could rally around an ailing individual with dance, prayer, or ritual, and we would be given the time and space needed to recover without judgement. Our community could bear witness to and hold compassionate space for an individual in need of healing; perhaps be less likely to flinch from the fact that anyone of us could be in the same position. In this healing space, it would be understood that no one escapes demons, and instead, it would be an event to be celebrated when one of us heals-  because in that act, we all heal. My fantasy is that, if we lived within community which understood the interrelatedness of all Beings, individuals with anxiety and/or depression could not only heal with less medication dependence, but also in a more multi-dimensional way. Sadly, this is not the reality I find myself waking up in every day. The reality I wake up in can be frequently void of community interaction, isolating, and lonely for many.  Some of us go months without much human interaction or touch, which is actually really unhealthy. We know this from numerous studies showing that humans flourish with adequate touch and diminish with lack of it. We also understand how important it is for our immune systems and overall well-being to be hugged!

However, not all hope is lost. One arena I see our modern society trying to bridge this gap the most is found within the “alternative” healing community. This could be due to different mind-sets about what healing looks like, or the need for these “misfit” practitioners to band together for support, inherently building community. Mostly, it could have to do with the fact that these modalities frequently involve more personal interaction for longer periods of time between client and practitioner than, say, a doctor’s visit allows, and often uses holistic assessment for multi-dimensional healing. These longer periods of time for interaction provide a better platform for people to be held in community, even if its a community of two. Most importantly, many of these healing modalities are hands-on.

With all of this in mind, it is no wonder that massage is particularly set up to meet many basic human needs related to healing, which include but are not limited to:  the ability to be held in non-judgement and compassionate space, having suffering acknowledged and treated, and being able to participate in an activity that places human interaction, slowing down, and touch at the forefront. This packs a powerful punch for anxiety and depression reduction. And there is A LOT of research to back this up (only a snippet of what’s out there is listed here):

  • A Mayo Clinic article states, “A 60-minute massage can lower cortisol, a hormone that’s produced in response to stress, by an average of 30 percent. And when cortisol levels decline, serotonin — one of the body’s anti-pain mechanisms — increases by an average of 28 percent after receiving a massage. By lowering cortisol and increasing serotonin, you’re boosting your body’s ability to fight off pain, anxiety and feelings of sadness.”
  • Because depression is typically the sister of anxeity, they are frequently studied together and somewhat interchangeably. One study explored the effect of massage by measuring EEG, stating that “Depressed individuals often have greater right than left frontal lobe EEG activity” and that “Frontal EEG has shifted from right to left in depressed adolescents and adults even after a short session of moderate pressure massage”
  • The study just noted goes on to list numerous other benefits, including how the vagus nerve activity (low in depressed individuals) elevates after massage.
  • The American Massage Therapy Association holds a strong position that massage helps reduce anxiety, quoting numerous study results, which include:
    • “There was a significant reduction in self-reported anxiety, resting heart rate and cortisol levels immediately following the initial and final massage therapy sessions”
    • “MT was shown to have effective immediate, short-term (20-30 minutes), intermediate (1-2.5 hours), and long-term benefits (16-18 hours) on PPI [present pain intensity] and anxiety. The most significant impact occurred 15 or 20 minutes after the intervention”
    • “Overall, the children in the massage therapy group improved in self-help abilities and communication, suggesting that massage therapy may enhance daily functioning for children with HIV/AIDS. Moreover, the HIV infected children who were six or older also showed a decrease in internalizing behaviors; specifically depressive/anxious behaviors and negative thoughts were reduced”
    • “After the hand massage [of cataract surgery patients], the psychological anxiety levels, systolic and diastolic blood pressures, and pulse rate were significantly lower than before the massage. The hand massage significantly decreased epinephrine and norepinephrine levels in the experimental group”
  • Technically speaking, the type of massage received matters: One study states that “SMT [Swedish Massage Therapy], is an effective acute treatment for GAD [Generalized Anxiety Disorder]”.  It has also been cited most often in research that moderate pressure versus lighter pressure is more effective in reducing anxiety.

As a side note, arguments could be made that “deep tissue” massage is more relaxing because it helps reduce specific bodily pain as well. My position is that, ultimately, your practitioner needs to know how to deliver a massage intended for relaxation effectively. More essential than executing the different techniques and strokes of a particular type of massage is the rhythm, speed, and quality of touch chosen. The practitioner must understand how the nervous system works and what regions of the body most impact it. For example, the high number of nerves in the hands, feet, and face/head make these places key touch points in a massage for relaxation. Lastly, the extent to which your practitioner creates a space that feels safe to you is the extent to which you will relax.

Bessel Vander Kolk, M.D.’s book on trauma and the body also lends insight into how body-oriented modalities (which includes massage) play an essential role in the healing process.  With reference to the introductory paragraph of this article and as we learn in Vander Kolk’s book, one of the major coping mechanisms we use when we are overwhelmed is numbing out. Frequently, there is literally no other way to get through the onslaught of daily demands, than to push down all the feelings and move forward. For short periods of time, it is a very effective way to function. Problem is, the onslaught usually doesn’t ebb, so neither does the numbing. Though we may not always associate our anxiety with trauma, prolonged anxiety and subsequent numbing can begin to look like trauma where the body is concerned. For example, Van Der Kolk writes:

“One of the ways the memory of helplessness is stored is as muscle tension or feelings of disintegration in the affected body areas: head, back, and limbs…The lives of many trauma survivors come to revolve around bracing against and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences, and most people I see in my practice have become experts in such self-numbing. They may become serially obese or anorexic or addicted to exercise or work… try to dull their intolerable inner world with drugs or alcohol. The flip side of numbing is sensation seeking…when people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain. They may visit multiple specialists… all of which fail to address the underlying issues (pg. 267-8).”

Additionally, he goes on to explain that, 

“one of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on these sensations to navigate safely through life. While numbing (or compensatory sensation seeking) may make life tolerable, the price you pay is that you lose awareness of what is going on inside your body and with that, the sense of being fully, sensually alive…if you are not aware of what your body needs, you can’t take care of it…simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation, and it helps you to stop trying to ignore what is going on inside you (pg. 275).”

When we make time to receive bodywork, we are literally giving ourselves a chance to pause. There is suddenly time to notice and feel our aches and pains. We are located, perhaps for the first time in weeks, in our bodies. The helplessness we feel in the face of not being able to slow our life down is addressed, physically, in whatever region of our body we’ve held it. This could include the neck and shoulders, the stomach, low back, jaw or head, and so on. Our painful and anxiety-provoking breath-holding starts to release and slow. As Van Der Kolk noted, body awareness not only gives us a better sense of self but also leads to taking better care of ourselves. Similar to much of the advice given during meditation- being allowed the space to simply notice what’s going on with ourselves (physical or otherwise) suddenly gives whatever is being noticed the space to be. From here we have access to choose how we respond. One could argue that this is the birth place of health.