We’ve always known that downtime is important to reduce job stress and recharge your batteries so you’re on top of your game at work. Now neuroscientists have gotten in on the act with a new study in Scientific Reports that shows short, easy-to-apply relaxation techniques can activate your body’s regenerative system (parasympathetic nervous system or the rest and digest response) for offsetting stress (your sympathetic nervous system or stress response)—offering a new perspective on how we can treat stress-related disease.
Small Moments, Big Impact
Scientists have known for years that stress has debilitating physical and mental consequences, but until now haven’t studied brief bouts of relaxation. Research by psychologists at the University of Konstanz observed higher levels of psychological and physiological relaxation in people after only 10 minutes of receiving a massage. Even 10 minutes of simple rest increased relaxation, albeit to a lesser degree than massage.
The researchers applied two different 10-minute massages on participants in the laboratory to test: A head-and-neck massage was designed to actively stimulate the PNS by applying moderate pressure on the vagal nerve, which is the largest nerve running to the PNS. Then a neck-and-shoulder massage with soft stroking movements was designed to examine whether just touch can also be relaxing. A control group of participants sitting quietly at a table was tested for the effect of rest without tactile stimulation. Physiological relaxation was gauged by monitoring the heart rate of participants and measuring heart rate variability, which indicates how flexibly the PNS can respond to changes in the environment. The higher the heart rate variability, the more the body is relaxed. Psychological relaxation was gauged by asking participants to describe how relaxed or stressed they felt.
As little as 10 minutes of resting or receiving massage resulted in a psychological and physiological reduction in stress. All participants reported that they felt more relaxed, and less stressed, compared with before the treatments. Plus, all participants showed significant increases in heart rate variability, which demonstrates that the PNS was activated and the body physiologically relaxed just by resting alone. The physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage. It was, however, not important whether the massage was soft or moderate—tactile contact in general seemed to improve the relaxation of the body.
According to Maria Meier, lead author of the study in the lab of Neuropsychology, “You don’t need professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for 10 minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”
This the first scientific evidence that short-term treatments such as massage can robustly reduce stress on a psychological and physiological level by boosting the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The discovery that massage is effective on the level of both psychology and physiology via the PNS will pave the way for future studies on understanding the role of relaxation on stress.
Meier, M. et al. (2020). Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial. Scientific Reports, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-71173-w