New study is first to show that a brief massage activates the stress-zapping parasympathetic nervous system.
KONSTANZ, Germany — Finding the time to relax and unwind after a stressful day can be almost as infuriating as the original stressors themselves. We all lead fast-paced lives (even during a pandemic) and many say the biggest obstacle they face in pursuit of rest is simply finding the time. Now, however, a new study is offering up some good news. All you need is a 10 minute massage or just plain rest to activate the body’s regenerative, stress-fighting system.
Researchers from the University of Konstanz say a group of participants displayed notable improvements in both psychological and physiological relaxation after just a 10-minute massage. These findings aren’t limited to massages, though. Participants also reaped serious stress-relief rewards after 10 minutes of regular old relaxation – albeit to a lesser extent than after a massage.
These results may sound anecdotal at first, but they’re actually quite noteworthy. This is the first study to ever conclude that the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can be jumpstarted by such a small period of relaxation. In other words, this is the first research that shows significant stress relieving benefits, on both a psychological and physiological level, stemming from just 10 minutes of rest.
Using massage to rev up the PNS, turn down stress
While stress does serve an evolutionary purpose, too much can be harmful to one’s health. That’s where the body’s PNS comes into play. The PNS does away with stress, incites relaxation, and is generally a big part of “restoring balance” to the body after a stressful episode. Obviously, a massage helps with relaxation. Yet interestingly, researchers say no prior study has ever outright confirmed that a massage activates the PNS.
Now, this research strongly indicates that massages can indeed be used to strengthen the PNS and relieve perceived mental stress.
“To get a better handle on the negative effects of stress, we need to understand its opposite – relaxation,” says Jens Pruessner, head of the Neuropsychology lab and Professor at the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior” at the University of Konstanz, in a release. “Relaxation therapies show great promise as a holistic way to treat stress, but more systematic scientific appraisal of these methods is needed.”
Measuring the effects of massage
Two different 10 minute massages were administered to study participants. The first was a head and neck massage specifically designed to stimulate the PNS via pressure on the vagal nerve. The second was a more traditional neck and shoulders massage. A control group of participants who just relaxed while sitting down was included as well.
Across all participants, physiological relaxation was measured according to heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV). These readings gave researchers an accurate idea of how flexible the PNS is to environmental changes. A higher HRV means more bodily relaxation.
Meanwhile, psychological relaxation was measured by asking respondents how they were feeling.
Across all three groups, all the participants enjoyed both psychological and physiological stress reduction after relaxing or getting a massage for 10 minutes. Every person reported feeling more relaxed and less stressed. Also, all participants showed big increases in HRV, confirming the PNS was activated by both sitting or getting a massage. Physiologically, however, those who received a massage felt more stress relief.
Interestingly, it didn’t matter from a stress-relief standpoint whether a massage was soft or “moderate.”
Putting your head down briefly can do the trick, too
“We are very encouraged by the findings that short periods of dis-engagement are enough to relax not just the mind but also the body,” says first study author Maria Meier, a doctoral student in the lab of Neuropsychology. “You don’t need a professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for ten minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”
“Massage, being such a commonly used relaxation therapy, was our first study,” she concludes. “Our next step is to test if other short interventions, like breathing exercises and meditation, show similar psychological and physiological relaxation results.”
The study is published in Scientific Reports.