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Intentional Touch for Anxiety Disorders: Massage Research Proves Mental Health Benefits

Dec 02, 2015 01:56AM ● By Lorraine Gengo

The idea that intentional touch can uplift or shift our mood and positively affect our emotions is an intuitive, primal impulse. Not until relatively recently has science tried to quantify or study how intentional touch can powerfully influence our emotional well-being and psychology. Ancient wisdom combined with modern technology’s ability to map the brain has illuminated how touch is yielding promising findings in the area of treating anxiety disorders.

Anxiety afflicts roughly 40 million adults in the U.S., according to Anxiety Disorders Association of America; massage therapy has conclusively been shown to help. Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wanted to see how effective massage therapy was in nine different areas, including its effect on blood pressure, heart rate, pain, and anxiety and depression. After analyzing 37 studies, the researchers found that, by far, massage therapy’s most substantial effect was in reducing chronic or “trait” anxiety. In fact, massage therapy’s benefits were similar in magnitude to those of psychotherapy. According to the meta-analysis, massage therapy participants experienced a reduction of trait anxiety 77 percent greater than comparison group participants. The researchers estimated that “the average psychotherapy client fares 79 percent better than untreated clients.”

“Indeed, there are probably no other effects in massage therapy research that have been as consistently demonstrated as these mental health benefits,” writes Christopher A. Moyer, Ph.D., in Massage Therapy, Integrating Research and Practice. Moyer was the lead researcher in the 2004 meta-study.

The aforementioned analysis did not delve into how or why different styles of bodywork might be more or less successful in reducing anxiety. However, pioneers in energy psychology have demonstrated that manual manipulation of acupuncture points, when combined with imagery and visualization, has been highly effective in treating a range of psychological conditions.

In “An Overview of Research in Energy Psychology,” David Feinstein, Ph.D., cites the groundbreaking work of South American physician and acupuncturist Dr. Joaquín Andrade, who conducted the first large-scale clinical trial into the manual “tapping” technique on acupoints (as opposed to needles) to treat patients with a host of anxiety-related conditions. For 14 years, Andrade conducted many studies at clinics in Argentina and Uruguay, but the one Feinstein notes as the most credible for its adherence to research standards was conducted over a five-and-a-half-year period, involving approximately 5,000 patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Half the patients received energy therapy treatments only, while the other half received cognitive behavior therapy, and medication as needed as the standard treatment for anxiety disorder. At the end of the trial, 90 percent of the energy therapy patients showed some improvement, as compared to 63 percent of the group that received cognitive behavior therapy. Most surprisingly, 76 percent of the energy therapy patients experienced complete remission of symptoms, compared to 51 percent of the control group.

Acupoints derive from the meridian system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a 2,000-year-old discipline that, despite its antiquity, is still the most widely practiced medicine in the world. Ayurveda, an even older system developed in India 5,000 years ago, also identified sensitive points on the skin, called marma points. The manipulation of these points, most often using sustained finger pressure in a circular pattern (although tapping and needling are also employed), has been used to treat illnesses affecting the nervous system and organ systems as well as mental imbalances. It seems no coincidence that the marma points used to treat anxiety in the ayurvedic system are exactly the same as the acupoints tapped by energy therapists in Andrade’s research studies.

Dr. Vasant Lad, widely credited with bringing the teachings of Ayurveda to the United States, discusses the similarities of the two systems in Marma Points of Ayurveda, a book he coauthored with his student, Anisha Durve, who is also trained in acupuncture. They found that “nearly 75 of the 117 principal marmani [plural for marma] correspond exactly to principal acupoints in Chinese medicine.” Many of these identical points are located on the head, face and neck and are useful in treating anxiety.

Lad suggests that perhaps a similar mechanism exits in both systems that brings about the previously cited effects. Though further study is certainly warranted, existing research suggests that stimulating these points releases endorphins and neurotransmitters—like serotonin—in the brain. This then helps modulate pain and enhance moods, and may also help an overtaxed autonomic nervous system return to more balanced function. Best of all, it does so without the side effects that often accompany medications.

Lorraine Gengo, LMT, provides ayurvedic massage and marma point therapy to patients at the New England Institute for Neurology and Headache and High Quality Home Therapy, in Stamford, CT.

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