Ten minutes of rest, relaxation, or massage is enough to take the edge off of stress, a new paper reports.
A team of researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany report that just a few minutes of downtime per day are enough to boost our mental and physical wellbeing. They explain that participants in their study showed higher levels of psychological and physiological relaxation after a ten-minute long massage, or simple rest (to a lesser degree than the massage).
This is the first evidence that short-term approaches can significantly reduce stress, the team concludes.
Good things in small doses
“To get a better handle on the negative effects of stress, we need to understand its opposite — relaxation,” says Jens Pruessner, a Professor at the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz.
“Relaxation therapies show great promise as a holistic way to treat stress, but more systematic scientific appraisal of these methods is needed.”
Stress is a build-up of tension caused by feeling overwhelmed or just not up to the challenges we’re presented with. Although all of us experience it throughout our lives, the debate on whether stress is ‘natural’ or the product of modern society is still up for debate. What everyone can agree on, however, is that stress isn’t pleasant — or healthy.
Our bodies do have mechanisms in place to handle stress during trying times so it doesn’t impact our performance when we need it most. These mechanisms are governed by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the part of our nervous system that handles automatic tasks including digestion or breathing. We know massages are relaxing, the team explains, but not whether they have a direct effect on the PNS and whether they can be the cornerstone of treatments against stress-related conditions.
For the study, the team developed a new way to test whether physical touch (in the form of a ten-minute massage) can help people relax physically and mentally. They used a head-and-neck massage designed to stimulate the PNS through the vagal nerve, and a neck-and-shoulder massage using soft strokes. The second type was meant to test whether physical touch alone, without the stimulation of any particular nerve bundles, can be relaxing. A control group was asked to sit quietly at a table to gauge the effect of rest without tactile stimulation.
Relaxation was gauged by monitoring the participants’ heart rate and by asking them to rate how relaxed or stressed they felt.
The massages were effective for both psychological and physiological relaxation, the team notes. All participants in the experimental groups reported feeling more relaxed and less stressed than before the experiment. Participants in all groups showed increases in heart rate variability, which signifies an increase in relaxation through the PNS even just from resting alone, the authors explain.
While the intensity of the massage didn’t make a difference, and all types helped promote relaxation, they were more effective than resting alone.
“We are very encouraged by the findings that short periods of dis-engagement are enough to relax not just the mind but also the body,” says Maria Meier, a doctoral student at Konstanz and first author of the study.
“You don’t need a professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for ten minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”
Going forward, the team plans to test whether other short interventions such as breathing exercises or meditation have a similar effect on our levels of stress.
The paper “Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.