Want to earn continuing education credit for this article? Learn more.

Anchored in strong beliefs about the significance of their work, most professional massage therapists are familiar with some of the emotional and physical benefits of bodywork. Massage’s ability to foster relaxation and relieve anxiety seems obvious. However, the universally accepted consequences of intentional touch have been underestimated for far too long. Based on facts compiled by academics at Harvard University, an ability to reduce anxiety translates to a capacity for improving some of our culture’s most widespread physiological ailments.

While it makes perfect sense that massage’s release of muscle tension would also reduce anxiety levels, our empirical society demands that scientific research prove any generally accepted notion. A pioneer in confirming the value of massage therapy, Tiffany Field, Ph.D., formally established The Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine in 1992. The first center in the world devoted solely to the study of touch and its application in science and medicine, TRI has conducted countless trials on the physiological impact of bodywork. Based on over 100 studies and 350 articles in respected medical journals, Field is one of the most influential contributors to transforming massage therapy into an acknowledged arm of complementary medicine.

Anxiety Reduction

Under Field’s guidance, TRI has published landmark studies on touch therapy’s reduction of anxiety. Two of those include:

  1. Published in 1992 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, TRI researchers found that a 30-minute back massage given daily for five days reduced anxiety of hospitalized, depressed and adjustment disorder children and adolescents.
  2. Published in 1996 in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, TRI researchers found that significant reductions in anxiety levels were found in employees receiving on-site chair massage.

These two studies represent a small sampling of the evidence equating massage therapy with anxiety relief. Used in Field’s and others’ research, chemical markers, anxiety questionnaires and other medical tests are used to measure these results, and bodywork’s reduction of anxiety levels has been repeatedly demonstrated.

Anxiety and Physical Illness

Putting massage research on other conditions aside, the ability of bodywork to relieve anxiety is so important, because high anxiety levels are connected to many physical ailments. Although most bodyworkers recognize the strong connection between emotions and physical health, scientific research on the physiology of anxiety-related illness is just beginning.

According to Harvard University scholars, physical diseases are harder to treat in the estimated 57 million adults who suffer from an anxiety disorder. More specifically, heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders and gastrointestinal ailments are more severe when coupled with anxiety:

  • Heart Disease – Published in a 2005 edition of Circulation, the Nurses’ Health Study found that women with the highest levels of phobic anxiety were 59 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 31 percent more likely to die from one than women with the lowest anxiety levels. In addition, data from 3,300 postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative showed that a history of full-blown panic attacks tripled the risk of a coronary event or stroke.
  • Respiratory Disorders – In several studies involving people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anxiety has been associated with more frequent hospitalization and with more severe distress at every level of lung function. Published in the May 2008 edition of the Annals of General Psychiatry, Greek researchers found that depression and anxiety were very prevalent in participants with pulmonary disease, especially chronic disease.
  • Gastrointestinal Ailments – Published in the June 2008 edition of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, German researchers found that gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are associated significantly with depression and anxiety in primary care. More specifically, they found that the prevalence of severe levels of anxiety was nearly fourfold in patients with GI symptoms compared to patients without GI symptoms.

The scientific community is finally gathering the proof concluding that anxiety worsens many types of chronic, potentially fatal diseases. As more irrefutable evidence links anxiety disorders to heart, respiratory and digestive diseases, anxiety relief is becoming more important than ever. Massage therapy has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to reduce anxiety levels within the medical research model. Thus, bodywork is emerging as one of the most valuable therapies for addressing the concurrence of emotional and physical health.

Earn continuing education credit for this article contained in our Anxiety & Massage series. Click here to enroll.

Recommended Study:

Advanced Anatomy and Pathology
Chair Massage Fundamentals
Integrative Massage: Spirit

More Information:

Anxiety: Massage Benefits and Precautions