Have you ever wondered why you feel better after a massage? Researchers have sought to answer that question. While the traditional explanation—that the success of the ritual hinges on the practitioner’s ability to change energy flows surrounding the body—may not be a satisfactory answer, it is not completely off base. Scientists are beginning to unravel the science behind touch-based healing.
Earlier this year, a pilot study was published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine detailing how touch-based healing rituals and massages affect those on the receiving end. Researchers brought in 22 individuals, half of whom had no prior exposure to touch-based healing, and asked them a series of questions before and after the therapy. They also monitored various physical signs throughout the session to see if there was a connection between psychological responses (as measured through the questionnaires) and physiological ones (heart rate, respiratory rate, etc.).
They found that during the sessions most metrics remained unchanged, except for one: skin conductance level (SCL), which is an umbrella term that refers to electrical characteristics of the skin. SCL is directly related to the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the body’s response to elevated emotions and does things like activate sweat glands. The researchers found that they were able to predict which of their subjects would report improved states of well-being based on whether or not they demonstrated higher SCL measurements during the session.
The authors believe that the improved state of well-being is associated with a known sympathetic pathway called the anticipatory stress response. In essence, it is a reflexive (almost defensive) response to an unknown an individual will experience before entering a state of relaxation once that unknown is deemed safe. The anticipatory stress response is associated with many forms of stress as well as love and relaxation.
This study is significant because it suggests that touch-based healing yields its beneficial effects by triggering the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the part of our bodies controlling our fight or flight response. It also suggests that there is more to touch-based healing than a placebo response or even simple physical relief. By understanding the underlying mechanisms, primary care providers may be able to use alternative medicine techniques like massage therapy with greater precision, turning it into an important part of a complete treatment plan.
There are still many unknowns left to uncover in touch-based healing, but the study shows promise by revealing an avenue for further research. Chaan Thai Blog will follow this research and follow up studies with great interest.
Did you have a massage recently? How was your experience? Were you able to notice this anticipatory stress response?