When it comes to relaxation, there are a few things we all associate with that it: spa days, cozying up by the fire, staying in bed until 2 p.m. and, of course, getting a massage. And although massage is great for helping you relax, it has more therapeutic benefits, too.
The term “massage” itself actually encompasses a wide array of different types of massage, ranging from Swedish massage (the most common type), to massages that have a more targeted and specific purpose, like a sports massage, which is aimed at helping athletes recover.
No matter the type, the benefits of massage really come down to one thing: pressure. “The skin is moved during a moderate pressure massage, which results in a calming and slowing of the nervous system,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. And that slowing of the nervous system leads to other physiological effects, too, like a decrease in heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and changes in EEG patterns (electrical activity in your brain), says Field.
Plus, in order to see those effects, it takes less time than you might think. “For research, we’re able to document positive effects for massages that are only 20 minutes long,” says Mark Hyman Rapaport, MD, chief of psychiatric services at Emory Healthcare, who has led multiple studies focused on the effects of massage. That means when you go to get a massage (most of which are usually advertised for being around 50 minutes long, says Dr. Rapaport), you’re under pressure for more than enough time to see optimal benefits.
And if you can’t afford to head to the spa down the street? “You do not need to go to a massage therapist all the time,” says Field. “You can give yourself a massage.” Since we’re able to reach most areas on our body, you can do a 20-minute self-massage by using a massage brush in the shower or even rubbing a tennis ball against your limbs, she explains.
So if you’re thinking about booking a time or investing in a self-massager, here are six of the therapy’s biggest benefits to know about.
If you suffer with anxiety, one study suggests that a massage can actually help significantly reduce your symptoms. “What we think is going on is it’s decreasing the sympathetic tone that we see with people with generalized anxiety disorder and increasing this sort of parasympathetic response,” says Dr. Rapaport, who led the study.
Your body actually has two different nervous systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. “Your sympathetic is fight or flight,” says Rudy Gehrman, DC, a sports medicine chiropractor and founder of Physio Logic in New York. “If you’re getting chased by a lion, that’s your sympathetic nervous system.”
During a massage, however, your parasympathetic (or calming) response is increased, which results in a decrease in anxiety, says Dr. Rapaport.
And equally great news? Those effects of massage on decreased anxiety can actually be long-lasting. “We did an informal follow-up, and a significant number of these people remained anxiety-free anywhere from six months to 18 months later,” says Dr. Rapaport.
Have trouble sleeping or suffer from insomnia? Massage can actually help you sleep more deeply. “Sleep is all related to how much activity there is in the nervous system,” says Field. And when you get a massage, your nervous system itself actually slows down due to the pressure.
Plus, when you’re getting deeper, more restorative sleep, she says, that in turn reduces your levels of substance P (a neurotransmitter for pain), which reduces overall pain. So if you have any aches, massage will do double-duty.