Spending quality time at a spa chilling out and having treatments is an ideal way to unwind, however, many people struggle to schedule a whole morning or afternoon to themselves. A new study from the University of Konstanz in Germany has suggested that there could be a quicker way to relax. It’s found that 10 minutes of massage or rest can boost the body’s principal engine for relaxation – the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – and lead to a reduction in perceived mental stress.
Physical and psychological
The research involved 60 female participants who were split into three groups of 20 and randomly assigned to a 10-minute relaxation intervention, either a vagus nerve massage or a soft shoulder massage, or a seated resting control scenario.
The vagus nerve massage focused on the head and neck and involved applying moderate pressure to the vagus nerve – which activates the PNS. The neck-and-shoulder massage used soft stroking movements designed to examine whether just touch can also be relaxing.
Psychological relaxation was measured by asking participants to describe how relaxed or stressed they felt before and after the intervention, using a questionnaire.
Physiological relaxation was gauged by monitoring participants’ heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV). The researchers say this is an indication of how the PNS responds to changes in the environment: the higher the HRV, the more relaxed the body is.
The women in all three groups (even those resting) experienced a reduction in both psychological stress, saying they felt more relaxed compared to before.
Moreover, all participants showed significant HRV increases, which demonstrates that the PNS, the body’s natural stress-reducer, was activated by the massages, and additionally, that the body physiologically relaxes just by resting alone. However, the physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage.
Researchers noted that it was not important whether the massage was soft or moderate, but that tactile contact in general seemed to improve the relaxation of the body.
According to researchers, the discovery that massage is effective on the level of both psychology and physiology via the PNS will help pave the way for future studies on understanding the role of relaxation on stress.
“Massage, being such a commonly used relaxation therapy, was our first study,” says Maria Meier, study first author and doctoral student in the lab of Neuropsychology at Konstanz. “Our next step is to test if other short interventions, like breathing exercises and meditation, show similar results.”
Called Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory, the study was published in the journal Scientific Reports in September.