Massage for anxiety, depression and chronic stress

Sep 2022 | Mental health support

Massage for anxiety, depression and chronic stress

Sep 2022 | Mental health support

So how exactly does massage/bodywork for mental health work?

For medical and mental health professionals, please see the MMA fact sheet at the end of this post.

Please note that physical therapies should not be the sole source of support for addressing mental health issues. Ensure you’re engaging with appropriate medical or psychological support services.


Can massage therapy really provide relief from chronic stress, anxiety and depression?


Massage therapy can play an important role in effective management of stress, depression and anxiety. Therapeutic bodywork – even more so, as we’ll explore below.

Psychiatric illness accounts for a large proportion of general practice presentations. Massage therapy has been shown to significantly reduce psychological stress levels, as well as alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It has also been shown to improve emotional well-being, relaxation, vitality and quality of sleep.

Massage can also enhance positive well-being and reduce stress perception among older adults, a vitally important factor in the face of an ageing population (see below Fact Sheet – Positive mental health).

According to the Australian government health resource, Better Health:

“Massage may be used to treat or prevent a range of physical and psychological conditions.

  • managing stress & high blood pressure
  • reduce anxiety and depression
  • managing insomnia
  • managing subacute/chronic low back pain
  • reduced muscle tension
  • improved circulation
  • stimulation of the lymphatic system
  • relaxation
  • increased joint mobility and flexibility
  • improved skin tone
  • heightened mental alertness”


Exactly how does massage therapy help? says it’s all about our receptors, nerves and hormones.

“During a moderate pressure massage, receptors within the skin are stimulated which send signals via our nerves to our brain. More often than not, the areas in the brain which receive these messages are responsible for emotion regulation and the secretion of hormones. For example, massage that stimulates such receptors in the skin has shown to decrease the secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, conversely our bodies produce natural antidepressants or our happy hormones, serotonin and dopamine.

Interestingly, massage has also shown to increase vagal nerve activity, which can typically be low in depressed individuals. The vagus nerve is gaining a lot of attention recently because of how many structures of the body it innervates and its function in regulating heart rate. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, cortisol levels reduce, the heart rate slows and our bodies enter a more relaxed state. How amazing!

Brain activity studies have demonstrated increased activity in the right frontal lobe of chronically depressed persons. This area of the brain is associated with negative emotion and withdrawal however following a short massage this brain activity shifted to the left frontal lobe. MRI scans following massage have also confirmed increased blood flow to the areas of the brain involved in regulation of depression and stress.”

If you’re a fan of statistics, one study found that…

…psychological issues are reduced between 60% and 77% more for the average person receiving a massage…

…psychological issues are reduced between 60% and 77% more for the average person receiving a massage…

…compared to those with similar psychological symptoms who do not receive massage.

Seven reasons why I recommend therapeutic Hawaiian bodywork for providing effective relief from chronic stress, anxiety and depression

As a practitioner of both Hawaiian bodywork and remedial massage therapy, I see clear benefits to both of these modalities.

However, in my experience, remedial massage is more ideally suited to addressing physical symptoms – typically, pain, tension and mobility issues. And it does a great job of this!

Hawaiian Lomi Lomi and Ka Huna are much more ideally suited to providing relief for emotional and mental health challenges, in multiple ways – well beyond standard relaxation massage. It comes down to the nature of the modality.

Hawaiian bodywork is unlike anything you’re likely to have experienced before. Key features include:
1. Heart-centred: The cornerstone of Hawaiian bodywork is its heart-centred focus – touch from the heart, not just from the mind. The practitioner has their focus on both their heart space and yours, with the specific goal of providing deeply compassionate, caring, supportive nurture. The result is that you feel not just worked on, but truly cared for.
2. Flow: The unique flowing style involves dynamic, rhythmic, long full body strokes, both over and UNDER the body! (Belly, back & limbs). This provides powerful therapeutic effects. It gets you more into your body, and it creates an emotionally nourishing, deeply nurturing experience.
3. Honouring: Another core element of this work that sets it apart is the sacred honouring aspect. The easiest way to describe this is if you’re familiar with the concept of greeting namaste… “the light in me honours the light in you”. Now imagine this sacred intention transferred into loving, honouring touch for an hour and a half!
4. Presence: This focus means that rather than feeling like you’re on a massage assembly line, your practitioner is holding space and being fully present for you in a way that makes you feel truly supported and, well, held. All emotion is welcomed, as are the tears that can follow. (We keep the tissues well stocked)
5. Energy work: Another thing setting Hawaiian bodywork apart is the energetic healing aspect – helping you get stuck, stagnant energy moving again. This is done both through the strategic use of flowing strokes and also through reiki-like energetic healing techniques.
6. Time out: These long flowing strokes often have the seemingly paradoxical effect of both getting you more into your body (always a good thing) and also transporting you to another place – an utterly blissful and nourishing space where time seems to stand still and your mind takes a vacation while your soul is being replenished.
7. Appropriate pressure: Application of appropriate pressure is critical to the therapeutic experience. Some people need moderately firm, reassuring pressure; some need lighter TLC type pressure and/or some enlivening vigorous flow, depending on the state of their nervous system. Hawaiian bodywork is mindfully delivered with a wide variety of pressure options so that your emotional/nervous system needs are met.
For those wanting the best of both worlds – muscle tension release AND heartful nurture – Lomi Life offers a Remedial Hawaiian Signature Blend – the most popular option on the menu.

In summary…

There is now a well established body of research supporting the benefits of massage therapy for mental health, including anxiety, depression, chronic stress and much more.
When it comes to physical therapies, on a scale of effectiveness in providing relief from such mental health challenges, clients (sufferers and fellow health practitioners) attest that heart-centred, holistic, therapeutic massage such as Hawaiian bodywork is a top tier modality in this field (and in my opinion, unsurpassed).
The powerful blend of unique elements such as compassionate, heart-centred focus, deeply nurturing flow, honouring, presence, sense of ritual, energetic work and more combines to provide outstanding outcomes in:

  • increased emotional resilience
  • uplifted mood – increased sense of ease/inner peace
  • a sense of reset – emotional and energetic replenishment
  • feeling more centred, grounded and more connected to the body
  • a greater sense of wholeness

and much more.


Massage and Myotherapy Australia Fact Sheet for health professionals: Help in Maintaining Positive Mental Health