Depression Awareness Month, Can Massage Help?

depressionawarenessOctober is Depression Awareness month.  I know, you’re thinking, “Depression Awareness Month, what?!  Doesn’t someone know if they’re depressed?”  Well, no, not always.  Years ago I was sitting in my college dorm cafeteria eating my lunch, when my friend across the table told me, “you’re depressed.”  “No, I’m not,” I replied.  But a year or two later I was withdrawing from college to sort out a muddled mind.

Depression isn’t just about feeling sad, or blue, or down in the dumps, though that can be part of it.  Depression can be insidious self-defeating thought spirals that become so habitual to the person having them they do not recognize them as abnormal.  Depression symptoms can be difficulty concentrating, feeling “empty”, disrupted sleep patterns, not enjoying hobbies, feeling worthless.  A person can be experiencing many of these things and not put them together under one label, or even see them as a problem.  Visit the National Institute of Mental Health website for more information about the signs and symptoms of depression.

Reach Out

In my experience, there was something isolating about depression.  Feelings of worthlessness, shame around having difficulty concentrating and grades slipping, feeling I should be able to just snap out of my funk — it was isolating.  So it took someone with great compassion to reach out to me and in a non-judgmental and empathetic way suggest, “Maybe you should come home.”  These were life saving and life changing words.  I am grateful I had someone who cared for me enough to help me help myself when I could not manage alone.

If you have a loved one who is struggling, they may not be able to work through it by themselves.  They may need you to open your heart to them with empathy, love, and compassion, before they understand they are 1) in need 2) worth the trouble of sorting out their problems and 3) there is a path out of their turmoil.

If you (or a loved one) are  struggling with depression, seek help from a mental health professional.  I did, and it helped.  What also helped were the healthy lifestyle changes I made:  a whole-food diet, daily exercise including running and yoga, weekly massage, building relationships with loved ones, reading inspirational material,  journaling, and learning to be disciplined with my thoughts.

Massage for Depression

It was during this time of my life that I first started receiving regular weekly massages.  A luxury?  Maybe.  Could I have shed my depression without it?  Possibly, but it would have taken longer.  The research is pretty clear that massage helps alleviate the symptoms of depression/anxiety.

Massage Therapy has been scientifically demonstrated to reduce anxiety and depression, and that the benefits are substantial. Indeed, there are probably no other effects in massage therapy research that have been as consistently demonstrated as these mental health benefits.  -Christopher A. Moyer, Ph.D. in counseling psychology at University of Illinois, co-editor of Massage Therapy, Integrating Research and Practice

When you are feeling depressed or anxious, your thoughts are drawn to and stuck to worries about the future and regrets about the past (and variations on this theme).  You become somewhat numb to your body and to your present moment experience.  You may not like yourself very much.  And you may take on the Charlie Brown posture:  Charlie Brown

How does massage impact these things?  First of all, MASSAGE FEELS GOOD, in a very clean, non-addictive, non-distractive way, massage brings you back to the present moment.  For people whom the present moment is a very uncomfortable or maybe an intolerable place to be, massage can be a safe passage to presence.  When I was depressed, I tried meditation but it was physically unbearably painful sit and be still.  However, it felt good to be in the present moment when I was getting a massage!  Being present is necessary to get out of the cyclical thoughts on the theme of fearing tomorrow and regretting the past, and massage therapy makes the present moment an attractive place to be.

Massage touches the brain.  Not literally, but we have thousands of nerve endings in our skin and connective tissues, when these are touched and manipulated, you are massaging the outer reach of your nervous system, thereby massaging your brain, and calming your mind.ABMP11_2

Skin to skin contact and one-on-one time with another human being is validating to our humanity.  To someone who is suffering from depression, who maybe does not believe in their worth or their value, this is incredibly powerful.  To be reminded of and to get to know their body, their whole physical self, this validates their human experience.  This is deeply healing.

The Charlie Brown posture, the standing or sitting version of the fetal position, is a protective place to be.  We curl up like this to protect our vital organs and to protect our heart–our physical, emotional, and energetic heart.  Sometimes in life, in moments of grief or extreme stress, this is a necessary place to be.  This is how we survive.  But as we seek healing from difficult experiences, healing the body is the pathway to transformation.  If a person spends a long time in the Charlie Brown posture, the muscles around the shoulder girdle, the anterior neck, and chest become short, constricted, glued together, and stuck.  Yes, literally, hydrogen bonds form between layers of fascia.  The ribs are not free to lift and spread, so a deep calming breath is elusive.  Cultivating a non-depressed way of thinking is more challenging if the body posture is always sending “the world is not safe!” messages to the brain.  Massage therapy with a myofascial intention frees up the bonds formed between the layers of connective tissue holding the body in this protective posture.  Myofascial massage (especially in conjunction with a mindful yoga or yin yoga practice) can do wonders to heal the body and thereby transform the mind.

It was during that semester off from college that I became convinced of the healing nature of massage and formulated my plan to go to massage therapy school.  Massage was my pathway to presence.  It helped calm and still my mind so that I could look at my life and and implement healthy changes.  Since then, regular (weekly to monthly) massages have remained a priority for me.  Massage therapy is a powerful healing tool, and I am honored to be able to offer it to others.

If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or any of the symptoms I have described here, please seek help from a mental health professional.  Consider whether massage is an appropriate complementary therapy for you.  You or your loved one does not need to suffer.   You are not alone, and you are not the only person to have been through this.  It can be a lot work effort to restore ones mental health, but it is worth it.

You are worth it.

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