Some research suggests that massage could help with depression symptoms. It may help lower stress hormones, improve sleep, relax tense muscles, and promote well-being.

In those with psychological trauma, certain types of massage may even help address a cause of depression. However, there is not a lot of high quality research that has directly tested this.

It is unclear what type, amount, or frequency of massage works best for people with depression. But as it is a safe and low risk therapy, some people may still want to try it.

This article discusses massage for depression and why it may help. It also examines the types of massage, how to perform self-massage, how to choose a massage therapist, and when to seek help.

A person receiving a face massage for depression.Share on Pinterest
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy

There is not a lot of research on massage for depression. What does exist tends to involve small groups of participants. However, these small studies do show promise.

A 2018 review of previous research notes that massage may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Scientists are still learning about the effects of massage on depression, so more studies are necessary to confirm these results.

There is currently no research comparing different types and styles of massage as treatments for depression. The most commonly available type in Western nations is typically Swedish massage. This involves a massage therapist applying long, fluid strokes to muscles and tissues.

Other types of massage include:

  • Shiatsu: This is a Japanese massage technique that consists of applying pressure to certain parts of the body using the palms and fingers in rhythmic, continuous motions.
  • Deep tissue massage: This involves manipulating both the top layers and deeper layers of muscle and tissue. It may cause lingering soreness.
  • Hot stone massage: This entails the placement of heated stones on the back of a person lying on their stomach. It promotes relaxation and reduces tension.
  • Trigger point massage: This involves applying pinpointed pressure to parts of the muscles where knots may form.
  • Myofascial release: This involves manipulating connective tissue surrounding muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. It uses a technique of gently rolling the skin back and forth.

Body-based trauma therapies

In addition to the types of massage that people use for general well-being, there are also people who practice massage as a type of trauma therapy.

Trauma is the mind and body’s response to a traumatic or intensely stressful event or series of events. Depression can be a result of this response.

Because trauma affects a person’s physical and mental health, some people find body-based therapies helpful because they address both areas at the same time. They may help a person reconnect to their body, begin to feel safe, or release pent-up emotions.

Research on body-based therapies for trauma is relatively new, but a 2020 review of various types of body-based therapies found that massage had the strongest evidence to support it.

People do not necessarily need to pay for massage therapy. It is also possible to try self-massage using the hands or massage tools. This can be a helpful way to practice self-care and compassion.

Self-massage likely offers similar benefits to therapeutic massage, such as:

  • reduced anxiety
  • enhanced circulation
  • decreased muscle tension
  • increased quality of sleep

There are not many studies on self-massage for depression specifically, but an older 2006 study of 45 females tested the effects of a reflexology self-foot massage. The results indicate that it may be effective in reducing depression and stress.

While it will not work for hard-to-reach areas, such as the back, self-massage may work well for arms, hands, neck, knees, calves, and feet. To perform self-massage, a person can try:

  1. choosing an oil for the skin, such as jojoba oil
  2. warming the bottle of oil in a bowl of warm water and testing a drop of oil on their arm to check that it is a comfortable temperature
  3. rubbing some oil into the hands and starting to massage the skin in gentle circles
  4. beginning with a light touch and increasing the pressure if it feels comfortable, and stopping or changing the technique if it hurts
  5. for the arms or legs, using longer strokes of even pressure with the palms, and using the fingertips to apply deep massage if it feels good to do so
  6. resting afterward while the oils sink into the skin

Scientists do not fully understand how massage may help depression, but it appears to have a range of effects on the body. It may:

  • decrease cortisol, which is a stress hormone
  • increase serotonin and dopamine, which are brain chemicals that can have a mood-boosting effect
  • stimulate parts of the brain with links to pleasure and reward
  • change a person’s brain waves, decreasing alpha and beta waves and increasing delta waves

Some scientists propose another theory — that massage may help with interoception, or the ability to identify or feel sensations inside the body. Some people with mental health conditions have impaired interoception, but therapies such as massage may help restore it.

Massage is generally safe and has a low risk of side effects. However, there is no evidence to suggest that massage works as a stand-alone treatment for depression.

People should use massage in addition to a more well-researched treatment, such as talk therapy, if they can access it.

A person’s choice of massage therapist will depend on what they would like to gain from their sessions. If the purpose is mainly relaxation, then any qualified and skilled massage therapist could help. If they specifically want a trauma-informed massage therapist, they may have a lower number of options in their area.

It may help to get recommendations from a mental health professional, such as a therapist. People may also try:

  • looking for therapists who work specifically with depression or mental health conditions
  • checking that a therapist has the right credentials, training, or licensing with a regulatory organization
  • reading their reviews online, if possible

Anyone with a persistent low mood or other symptoms of depression should speak with a doctor or mental health professional. Even if they decide to pursue treatment elsewhere, it is important that a person’s primary doctor knows about their symptoms.

When symptoms of depression are severe and include thoughts of suicide, it is best to seek help as soon as possible.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Research on massage for depression indicates that it may offer benefits. Massage may reduce cortisol, increase oxytocin, improve sleep, and promote a feeling of overall well-being.

It is unclear which types of massage are best for depression, if any. But there are some types that are specifically for people with a history of trauma, and some massage therapists may have experience helping clients with depression. It may help to look for these therapists when searching for the right fit.

People can also try self-massage at home, which may provide similar benefits. However, massage is not proven as a stand-alone depression treatment. Anyone with depression symptoms should speak with a doctor or psychotherapist.