The Unsung Self-Care Practice for Pandemic Aches and Pains

From Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s Be Well 

As a safe, structured outlet for social and physical contact, massage therapy addresses the shadow pandemic rising in the wake of COVID-19: touch starvation.

Massage therapy may seem like the last thing you’d think to try during a pandemic when social distancing defines our daily routines and friendly physical contact feels like a distant memory from a former life. And yet, this time-honored treatment may actually serve as the perfect antidote for the pandemic-induced woes so many of us are struggling with: loneliness, depression, anxiety, physical aches, and chronic pain.

Sarah Weaver, a board-certified massage therapist with Northwestern Health Sciences University, says that while the complaints that bring patients to her practice are not unique to the pandemic, living with the worry and isolation of the past year has exacerbated pre-existing physical and mental health issues for many.

The Healing Power of Touch
As if it weren’t bad enough to be socially distanced from family and friends, those living alone during the pandemic are also deprived of regular physical contact, which is essential for wellbeing. Touch supports mental, emotional, and physical health by reducing stress, releasing serotonin, and strengthening social bonds.

The elderly are already the highest risk population for COVID-19. They are also among the most at-risk for loneliness and touch starvation. “I work with many clients who are elderly and living alone,” says Weaver. “During the pandemic, massage therapy has been a safe, structured way for them to have social interaction and be touched.”

Weaver will sometimes perform in-home massages, but most appointments take place at her office, where COVID-19 protocols make the massage room a safer environment than most. “On top of my mask, I’m always wearing a face shield and I have a HEPA filter running in the room to increase the cleanliness of the air,” she says. Along with the requisite masks, her clients have their temperature taken, answer symptom questions, and wash their hands when they come in the door.

Soothing the Stress Response Cycle
If you’ve ever had a headache after a bad day or felt your heart pounding during a tense conversation, you know that stress often manifests in physical symptoms. Chronic stress—such as that caused by, say, a global pandemic—will take a toll on your body. Migraines, neck and back pain, insomnia, and high blood pressure can all be linked to chronic stress.

“When you’ve done talk therapy for a long time and you feel supported but you don’t have any new insights on the issue, it can help to find something to shift how you feel, physically, right in the moment.” Sarah Weaver, Northwestern Health Sciences University.

Massage therapy can help alleviate the physical symptoms of psychological stress. Weaver says, “From a physiological perspective, we know that massage can pull someone out of a stress response. After the massage, they’re able to breathe more deeply, their heart rate may drop, and they’ll feel more relaxed.”

She explains that massage therapy is particularly good at affecting something called “state anxiety,” which is anxiety connected to a specific situation. For instance, cancer patients who receive a hand or foot massage before chemotherapy feel less anticipatory anxiety about the treatment. “The same,” Weaver says, “would be true for any situational stressor.” (Looking at you, COVID-19.)

An Instant Mood Lift
While talk therapy is a slow and steady process that can often take months to make a difference, by stopping the stress response in its tracks, massage therapy can have a positive impact after even one session.

“You can experience a fairly immediate mood change,” says Weaver. If you walk in feeling anxious or depressed, you might not walk out on cloud nine, but Weaver says her patients report feeling “more grounded,” like they’ve been brought back to baseline.

Weaver recommends massage as a complement to talk therapy—especially for those who feel they’ve hit a plateau. “When you’ve done talk therapy for a long time,” she says, “and you feel supported but you don’t have any new insights on the issue, it can help to find something to shift how you feel physically, right in the moment.”

Both depression and anxiety have physiological features that can be difficult to manage through talk therapy alone. “Having something that addresses those physical symptoms can support the work happening in talk therapy,” says Weaver.

Whether your concerns are physical, emotional, or mental, Weaver emphasizes that “You don’t need to have something that hurts to get a massage. It’s going to be helpful, health-wise, regardless of whether you’re currently hurting.” As the saying goes—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.