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The Cortisol Connection

Using Medical Massage to Counter Anxiety

We all experience anxiety at times. When feelings of anxiousness are constant and overwhelming, though, anxiety becomes a chronic problem. Thankfully, massage effectively counters this all-too prevalent condition.

Causes of Anxiety

Humans are physiologically designed to respond to danger, such as being chased by wild animals, with a boost of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, which prepares us for fight or fl ght. Cortisol suppresses digestion and elimination, and it increases both blood pressure and circulation to prepare the body for quick action.

Today, most of our problems are not wild animals, yet the same evolutionary response to stresses remains. When anxiety and stress persist, sustained high levels of cortisol can result in chronic elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, pain, headaches, suppressed immune system function, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty in concentration and overall decreased quality of life.

How Massage Helps

Regular bodywork, such as massage, can help to reduce the feeling of anxiety, adding to satisfaction and joy of life, and various forms of therapeutic soft tissue manipulation have been practiced for thousands of years to treat anxiety. Done well, professional massage has a calming eff ect, as it increases production of oxytocin and serotonin, hormones associated with the parasympathetic response—the opposite of the sympathetic fight-or-fl ght reaction.

The feeling of relaxation created by regular massage therapy can reduce blood pressure and improve mood. When the body is relaxed, the nervous system responds with improved digestion and elimination processes, lower heart rate, deeper breathing, better quality of sleep and reduced anxiety, all of which promote a healthier quality of life.

Types of Massage

The various types of therapeutic massage off ered today include relaxing Swedish massage; invigorating Asian massage techniques including reflexology; prenatal massage for pregnant women; sports massage; and clinical massage, also called medical massage.

Clinical massage is outcome-based and targets a client’s specific issues. A specially educated medical massage therapist with advanced clinical training provides a thorough assessment and outlines specific outcome goals. Clinical massage also considers a greater variety of medical conditions than typical, basic Swedish massage.

Deep tissue massage, which is a massage technique rather than a specific modality, involves the use of the therapist’s bony parts, like knuckles and elbows, to get to deeper, less superficial tissues. Even so, it should not be painful. A skilled therapist will work through the client’s tissue layers gradually, relaxing the surface tissues before going in deeper. The maxim that if a massage hurts, the therapist isn’t doing it right, applies.

Relieving chronic tension and pain may require several massage sessions, and maintaining a positive mental outlook during sessions is important. Participants should avoid dwelling on stressful situations, such as family, financial or workrelated issues. They can simply relax and enjoy the experience, trusting that the licensed massage therapist will take care of it all.

It’s important to realize that one size most assuredly does not fit all. Should a therapist not be a good fit, for any reason, trying out another is not only okay, but advisable; any professional would acknowledge this basic tenet. Finally, consulting with a primary care physician prior to any treatment is advisable.

Dr. Cory Schultz is a doctor of traditional naturopathy, specializing in weight management, cleansing and detoxification, nutrition and fitness, advanced clinical massage and general wellness. For more information, visit

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