Short duration massage, rest helps body fight stress, study says

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Short, easy-to-apply relaxation techniques can activate the body's regenerative system for fighting stress, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Stress is known to have negative consequences for health and disease. However, humans have a built-in regenerative system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), to ward off stress during times of threat. Launching a relaxation response is thus key to protecting our health and restoring balance in our body, the researchers said.

Massage has been used to improve relaxation, yet no systematic approach exists to robustly confirm its effect on the PNS and whether this could be used as rehabilitation for patients suffering from stress-related disease. For the study, researchers developed a standardized approach for testing if tactile stimulation could improve mental and physical relaxation. They applied two different ten-minute massages on human subjects in the laboratory to test.

A head-and-neck massage was designed to actively stimulate the PNS by applying moderate pressure on the vagal nerve, which is the largest nerve running to the PNS. Then a neck-and-shoulder massage with soft stroking movements was designed to examine whether just touch can also be relaxing. Finally, a control group of participants sitting quietly at a table was tested for the effect of rest without tactile stimulation.

Physiological relaxation was gauged by monitoring the heart rate of participants and measuring heart rate variability (HRV), which indicates how flexibly the PNS can respond to changes in the environment. The higher the HRV, the more relaxed is the body. Psychological relaxation was gauged by asking participants to describe how relaxed or stressed they feel, the researchers said.

Ten minutes of resting or receiving either massage resulted in psychological and physiological reduction in stress, according to the study. All participants reported that they felt more relaxed, and less stressed, compared with before the treatments. Further, all participants showed significant increases in heart rate variability, which demonstrates that the PNS was activated and the body physiologically relaxed just by resting alone. The physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage, the study said.

The researchers said the study allows further experiments to test the effects of additional relaxation interventions that could be used in prevention or rehabilitation programs for people suffering from stress-related diseases, such as depression or anxiety.