A recent study from the University of Konstanz in Germany has revealed that 10 minutes of massage or rest can help the body combat stress.
The study showed that massage is an easy-to-apply intervention that can boost the body’s principal engine for relaxation – the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – and lead to a reduction in perceived mental stress.
According to researchers, the discovery that massage is effective on the level of both psychology and physiology via the PNS will help pave the way for future studies on understanding the role of relaxation on stress.
“Massage, being such a commonly used relaxation therapy, was our first study,” said Maria Meier, study first author and doctoral student in the lab of Neuropsychology at the University.
“Our next step is to test if other short interventions, like breathing exercises and meditation, show similar psychological and physiological relaxation results.”
The research involved 60 female participants who were split into three groups of 20 and randomly assigned to a 10-minute relaxation intervention; either a vagus nerve massage, a soft shoulder massage or a seated resting control scenario.
The vagus nerve massage focused on the head and neck and applied moderate pressure to the vagus nerve – which activates the PNS. The neck-and- shoulder massage used soft stroking movements designed to examine whether just touch can also be relaxing.
Psychological relaxation was measured by asking participants to describe how relaxed or stressed they felt before and after the intervention, using a questionnaire.
Physiological relaxation was gauged by monitoring participant’s heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) – which indicates how flexibly the PNS can respond to changes in the environment. According to researchers, the higher the HRV, the more relaxed the body is.
All three interventions resulted in both psychological and physiological reduction in stress – with all participants reporting they felt more relaxed and less stressed, compared with before the treatments.
Moreover, all participants showed significant HRV increases, which demonstrates that the PNS, the body’s natural stress-reducer, was activated by the massages, and additionally, that the body physiologically relaxes just by resting alone, as shown by the control group’s results.
However, the physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage.
The researchers noted that it was not important whether the massage was soft or moderate, but that tactile contact in general seemed to improve the relaxation of the body.
Produced by Maria Meier, study first author and doctoral student in the lab of Neuropsychology at the University of Konstanz