In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports in September 2020, researchers confirmed that the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s fight or flight response, is physically and psychologically regenerative and is especially activated through massage therapy.
While we have all thought massage encourages relaxation and that relaxing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, these researchers set out to scientifically prove it.
The researchers broke the study participants into three groups:
The first group received 10 minutes of head and neck massage dedicated to stimulating the vagus nerve, where approximately 75 percent of parasympathetic nervous system nerve fibers are located.
The second group received a softer 10-minute massage in order to study the effects of any tactile contact on the parasympathetic nervous system.
Those in the last group simply spent 10 minutes sitting at a table and relaxing.
The researchers used a questionnaire to evaluate the psychological effects of each intervention on the participants and measured their heart rate as well as their heart rate variability to determine the physical effects.
Heart rate variability describes the time between heartbeats. When the body is in fight or flight mode, heart rate variability is low, almost zero, because the heart is beating at the same, very rapid pace. But when the body is relaxed, there is more variation between the length of time between heart beats and heart rate variability is higher.
Each of the participants that received some massage, whether dedicated to activating the vagus nerve or not, had significantly higher heart rate variability levels than those who did not and they reported feeling less stressed and more relaxed after the massage.
The study found that simple tactile contact was just as effective for helping someone to relax as massage directed toward activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Their takeaway was that even a short period of time dedicated to relaxation, especially when combined with some form of massage, can do wonders for people’s stress levels.
Massage therapy not only lowers stress hormones but also increases dopamine and endorphin levels, improving people’s mood and relieving pain. The relaxing environment of a massage therapy office as well as the aromatherapy used during the massage also help to decrease stress and encourage relaxation.
It’s not news that Americans are experiencing more stress and anxiety these days due to the emotional and financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Massage can be a great way to mitigate some of the negative effects prolonged periods of stress can have on the body.