What can help the body recover from stress?

A ten-minute massage and rest activate the body’s regenerative system to combat stress, says study.

It’s a busy world out there, showing no sign of slowing down any time soon, so finding ways to buffer stress and protect our bodies is essential to health.  

Taking time out for extended periods is difficult for many people, so psychologists from the University of Konstanz in Germany are exploring whether common relaxation techniques, applied just for short periods, activate the body’s internal mechanism to combat stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, calms the body down, conserves energy and is key to protecting our health and restoring balance.

In this study, the participants received two ten-minute head and neck massages. The first massage applied moderate pressure on the vagal nerve, the largest nerve running to the PNS.

The second massage used soft stroking movements to see whether light touch could be relaxing. In addition, a control group sat quietly for ten minutes and received no massage.

The researchers measured heart rate variability, which indicates how well the PNS responds to change; if the body is relaxed, heart rate variability is high, and if the body is stressed, heart rate variability is low. The participants were also asked about their stress levels.

The results published in the journal Scientific Reports found just ten minutes of massage increased heart rate variability, indicating the PNS was activated and the body more relaxed. The participants reported also feeling less stressed.

It didn’t seem to matter whether the massage was soft or moderate. Tactile contact, in general, helped the body to calm down. Even a ten minute sit down increased relaxation, although to a lesser degree than massage.

“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,” said Maria Meier, the first study author in a press release. “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.”


Maria Meier, Eva Unternaehrer, Stephanie J. Dimitroff, Annika B. E. Benz, Ulrike U. Bentele, Sabine M. Schorpp, Maya Wenzel, Jens C. Pruessner. Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-71173-w


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