Researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany concluded that easy-to-apply relaxation techniques can activate the body’s regenerative system for fighting stress. Just 10 minutes of massage or even simple rest can increase the levels of psychological and physiological relaxation.
For the study, two different 10-minute massages were used. A head and neck massage was designed to actively stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) by applying moderate pressure on the vagal nerve, while a neck and shoulder massage with soft stroking movements was designed to examine whether touch alone can also be relaxing. A control group of participants sitting quietly at a table was tested for the effect of rest without tactile stimulation.
"To get a better handle on the negative effects of stress, we need to understand its opposite—relaxation," says Jens Pruessner, coauthor and head of the neuropsychology lab and professor at the Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the university. "Relaxation therapies show great promise as a holistic way to treat stress, but more systematic scientific appraisal of these methods is needed."
Interestingly, the test resulted in a reduction in stress across the board. All participants reported feeling more relaxed and less stressed. Plus, they all experienced a significant boost in heart rate variability, which demonstrates that the PNS was activated and the body physiologically relaxed just by resting alone. Of course, the physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage, but it didn't matter whether the massage was tactile or soft; touch therapy alone was enough to relax the body.
"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, coauthor and doctoral student in the lab of neuropsychology. "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 10 minutes, is an effective way to boost your body's physiological engine of relaxation."
The authors concluded that these results allow further experiments to test the effects of other relaxation techniques, such as meditation and breathwork, for potential prevention or rehabilitation programs for people suffering from stress-adjacent diseases like depression.