If you feel too busy to slow down and take a small catnap or too busy to book an hour long massage service, take heart—just resting for 10 minutes or having a 10-minute massage may be all you need to rejuvenate.
Researchers interested in what types of practices could stimulate the body into a state of relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) recently put massage and cat-nap rest periods to the test. The PNS is the counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system. While the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, the PNS calms and relaxes the body.
The participants were healthy young women whose heart rate variability was measured during ten-minute sessions of massage. Two types of massage were tested: one massage focused on the head and neck, and the other on the head and shoulders. A control group sat quietly without any massage intervention to demonstrate how much relaxation could occur with a quick period of rest.
The heart rate variability (HRV) measurements were key in determining the mechanisms behind the relaxation. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated by massage on the head and neck, it’s stimulated because the vagus nerve is affected. The vagus nerve is the largest of its kind which connects to the PNS. Based on monitoring the fluctuations in the participants’ heart rate variability, the researchers correlated that head and neck massage does work directly to calm and relax the body due to the interaction from outside touch.
The other type of massage focused on the head and shoulders was not aimed directly at the vagus nerve. Instead, researchers instructed the massage therapists to use light stroking movements to determine if touch could induce relaxation regardless of technique or pressure.
During the massage treatments, all participants felt lower stress levels and higher relaxation. All of the participants experienced an increase in their heart rate variability, and 90% of those who received the massages had significant increases in HRV which suggests effective stimulation of the PNS. The control group who sat quietly was also relaxed, and 84% of these participants had an increase in heart rate variability within the group, also suggesting quiet relaxation gives the body time to activate the PNS.
As suspected, massage of any kind resulted in stress relief for the body (including the non-structured light touch massage), with periods of quiet rest following. The results are achievable in just 10-minute segments, which is encouraging news for those of us who just need a few minutes of quiet to replenish ourselves—nearly as well as a massage could.
Meier, M., Unternaehrer, E., Dimitroff, S.J. et al. Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial. Sci Rep 10, 14774 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-71173-w