How does massage help PTSD, stress and anxiety?

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ptsd symptoms

How does massage help PTSD, stress and anxiety?

– by Kimberley Pledger

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is classified as a mental health diagnosis for which the primary treatments are anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication and talking therapies.

Despite its classification, PTSD is a prime example of the body and mind working as an integrated whole, where changes happen in tandem on a mental, physical and physiological level. In other words, PTSD exists in the mind and the body. This means that the current treatments for PTSD, based as they are on an outdated idea of a separation between the functioning of the mind and body, overlook the physical symptoms of this disorder.

Recovery from PTSD is not just about minimising or eradicating the psychological symptoms, it’s also about feeling yourself again, which means feeling in charge of your body and being able to trust it again.  This article will review the physical symptoms of PTSD and consider how touch therapy (massage), as a complement to medical and psychotherapeutic treatment, can help you regain your sense of self.

The Physical Symptoms of PTSD

There are ten physical symptoms commonly associated with PTSD so lets look at each of them in turn and consider how regular massage can help to address them.

1. Insomnia
Insomnia is itself a symptom of the hypervigilance experienced with PTSD — it stands to reason that if you’re always on guard and you never switch off then you’re going to struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep. The physiological reason you are hypervigilant is that your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. The sympathetic nervous system is made up of the parts of your brain and body that kick in when you’re in danger and control whether you fight back, flee or play dead. Positive touch stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the parts of your body and brain that are activated when you are relaxed and experiencing something that gives you pleasure. The rhythmic stroking and kneading of the body that takes place during massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system and induces a feeling of sleepiness. This feeling normally starts a short while into a massage and is accompanied by a sense of well-being which should last for several hours after the massage has finished. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person to feel the effects of a massage for a few days afterwards so you can see how regular massage could really help someone with PTSD to overcome insomnia.

2. Exhaustion
Exhaustion as a symptom of PTSD is partly the knock-on effect of insomnia, but also a result of the body being stretched to its limits because it is always on alert.  Massage deactivates the parts of the body and mind that are stimulated when under threat and effectively reverses the effects of hypervigilance. Instead of feeling wide awake and jittery you feel sleepy and calm; instead of working in overdrive your body moves into cruise control and eventually slows down into sleep. If this happens regularly it reminds the body that rest is possible and desirable so over a period of time you start to wake up feeling refreshed instead of exhausted.

3. & 4. Accelerated Heart Rate and High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
In order to maintain the heightened state of readiness demanded by the sympathetic nervous system in a person with PTSD, the heart beats faster so it can quickly pump blood to where it is needed most — the larger muscles to get them ready for fight or flight. One of the factors in high blood pressure is an accelerated heart rate, which is why hypertension is commonly found in people with PTSD.

Massage effectively switches off the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic so the heart slows down, breathing becomes deeper and a feeling of wellbeing spreads through the body. There have been several studies showing how regular massage can help to keep blood pressure at lower levels.

The hormone cortisol is known to be a factor in hypertension and is also evident in high levels in people with PTSD. Although it is not yet fully understood how cortisol contributes to either PTSD or high blood pressure, what is known is that cortisol levels drop following massage.