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Depression: can massage really help?

According to Beyond Blue in Australia, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.  In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. That’s around the same percentage of adults who are left-handed, and yet while being a lefty might be a source of amusement or quirky curiosity (or sometimes an advantage, in the case of athletes), there is still stigma and silence surrounding depression as an illness

So let’s talk: what is depression? Why is it problematic? And is there anything that can help?


Let’s start with what depression isn’t: a bad day, a brief period of mourning after a loss, or a pessimistic outlook on life. It consists of a period of more than two weeks of a bad mood, decreased interest in things that one normally finds enjoyable, and can also include fatigue, changes in weight, difficulty concentrating, inappropriate guilt, and even suicidal thoughts. While two weeks is the minimum length for defining depression, it can continue for months or even years.


Yes. Major depression is an episode of depression two weeks or longer that messes with your ability to function throughout the day. People can have multiple episodes of major depression throughout their lives. Postpartum depression is a depressive episode that occurs after a woman has given birth. Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated SAD) is a form of depression during the winter months, when there is less sunlight. Manic Depression (also called bipolar disorder) involves cycles of depressive lows and manic highs. There are also mild forms of depression that do not meet all the requirements of major depression.


Aside from just feeling like crap on an emotional level, depression can also have other serious effects on a person’s health. People who suffer from depression are more likely to engage in negative habits such as smoking and excessive drinking. They are also less likely to get sufficient exercise, and are more likely to stop the physical activities they used to participate in. Depression can disrupt sleep schedules and also negatively affect one’s professional and personal relationships, resulting in more stress, which leads to its own host of health issues. It’s a truly nasty cycle.


Mental illness has always been something of a taboo subject. Those with more severe problems might be seen as crazy and unstable, while those with more mild issues can be accused of making it up for attention, or using the term as an excuse for ordinary laziness. We’ve come to terms with the fact that our physical bodies can be sick and broken however talking about our mind, our soul the very essence of who we are is still very much an uncomfortable subject when it needn’t be.  And so we’re left without the sorts of public conversations that in turn become private ones between friends. It’s easy to ask a friend if she’s taking painkillers for her broken leg. Asking her if she’s considered antidepressants? Not so much.  There is a disproportionate serving of shame and guilt here.


Absolutely, and the first step is diagnosis. You need to speak to your GP.  You need to get to the root cause of why you have depression – is it prolonged exposure to stress, chronic pain, perhaps your hormones are out of whack.  You might be physically ill.  A physician will be able to speak intelligently about options like therapy, medication, and other treatments and lifestyle changes. And if you’re brushed aside, find a GP who will listen to you and take you seriously.  There is good help out there.

You might also want to get a massage.


Absolutely. There’s quite a body of research to demonstrate that massage helps to reduce many of the unpleasant feelings associated with depression. Let’s be straight though.  Massage cannot cure depression.  And if you are seeking massage to help improve your mood – be really clear to your therapist about why you are seeking massage, and also let your therapist know about any medication that you are taking.

It’s all about feeling safe, nurtured and receiving loving, caring touch.  Massage has been found to reduce depression and improve mood in people of all stripes, from children with HIV, to adolescents with psychiatric disorders, to hospice patients. Caring touch does seem to have a real effect on mood, whether it’s from a loved one, a massage therapist, or a favourite pet.

We do know that caring touch received through massage reduces cortisol – one of the hormones associated with stress, and massage elevates dopamine (associated with reward and pleasure) and oxcytocin (hormone of feeling love and trust).

Many people living with depression developed depression because of long term pain.  We know that massage helps to reduce chronic pain for the short and long term.  And speaking personally, when long term pain lifts – this is life changing.

Massage can also help you to sleep better, and let’s face it we’re all better people when we’ve had sleep.  And if you are feeling better and are well rested, you’re likely to be in a better position to cope with life without the feeling of overwhelm.

Couple the physiological science with the psychology – dark quiet room, warm, safe, nice music, a therapist who genuinely cares about you.  Free of work place and home stressors, for an hour or more this is your time, your space and a time that is about you.

Of course, if you’re a regular recipient of massage, you can judge for yourself: is your mood improved after a massage? And if you haven’t received a massage lately (or ever!), this is a great opportunity.

Do it for science! Or, do it for yourself. Because everyone deserves to feel better, including you.

For immediate crisis support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.  For advice and support for anxiety and depression visit BeyondBlue

David Clayton is the Principal Remedial Therapist at Myomasters Massage located in Hope Valley in the north east of Adelaide.  He has a passion for supporting humans to live the lives they were to born to live using massage and soft tissue therapies.  He has a particular interest in assisting people to recover from stress, anxiety and trauma using compassionate and nurturing touch.

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