Simple relaxation appears to be just as effective as more intensive forms of therapy — such as massage — meant to help provide a person with stress relief.
In a randomized research study, participants who received massage, simple relaxation, or something call ‘thermotherapy’ all reported a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms by half.
“We were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of ‘thermotherapy’ or listening to relaxing music,” said Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute.
“This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalized relaxation response.”
Massage therapy is among the most popular complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for anxiety, she added. But this is the first rigorous trial to assess how effective massage is for patients with generalized anxiety disorder.
The trial randomly assigned 68 Group Health patients with generalized anxiety disorder to 10 one-hour sessions in pleasant, relaxing environments, each presided over by a licensed massage therapists who delivered either massage or one of two control treatments.
The first kind of control treatment was relaxation therapy, where the patient practiced breathing deeply while lying down. The second kind of control treatment was thermotherapy, where the patient has their arms and legs wrapped intermittently with heating pads and warm towels.
All three treatments were provided while lying down on a massage table in a softly lighted room with quiet music. All participants received a handout on practicing deep breathing daily at home. Unlike the two control treatments, massage was specifically designed to enhance the function of the parasympathetic nervous system and relieve symptoms of anxiety including muscle tension.
Using a standard rating scale in interviews, the researchers asked the patients about the psychological and physical effects of their anxiety right after the 12-week treatment period ended and three months later, Dr. Sherman said.
All three of the groups reported that their symptoms of anxiety had decreased by about 40 percent by the end of treatment, and by about 50 percent three months later.
In addition to the decline in anxiety, the patients also reported fewer symptoms of depression and less worry and disability. The research team detected no differences among the three groups; but the trial did not include a control group that got no treatment at all.
“Treatment in a relaxing room is much less expensive than the other treatments (massage or thermotherapy), so it might be the most cost-effective option for people with generalized anxiety disorder who want to try a relaxation-oriented complementary medicine therapy,” Dr. Sherman said.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, funded the study, which was published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Source: Group Health Research Institute