Massage for Stress

Get in touch with caring for your immune system

by Robert Zukwoski

massage[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here are many different types of massage, but I would like to put the exhaustive list of specialized options aside and focus on the broader subject of stress, its physiological impact and how to potentially reduce it via Swedish massage. The negative physiological impact of stress is well documented and reducing stress is paramount to everyone. However, stress reduction for individuals living with HIV should be among the top priorities; not only due to the wide range of stress related illnesses, but due to the impact of stress on the immune system.

Swedish massage, or full body, classic massage, is an underutilized and misunderstood modality. It is moderately pressured work that is sometimes seen as merely pampering. Understandably so. These sessions are often marketed with flickering candles, incense and flower petals scattered about the room. Don’t let the pomp and circumstance fool you. There are real physiological benefits to a Swedish massage; benefits that may play an important role in wellness for individuals living with HIV.

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a pertinent part in stress and its impact on your body. It regulates certain physiological processes and works automatically, without any conscious effort on our part. It controls functions such as body temperature, respiratory rate, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, metabolism, urination, defecation, sexual response and more.

The ANS is broken down into two main divisions—the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for something you may know as “rest and digest.” The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for “fight or flight”, also known as the stress response.

Fight or flight is a survival mechanism that prepares us on a physiological level to respond to threats to our wellbeing. When presented with a threat or stressful situation, be it real or perceived, physical or psychological, the ANS activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers the fight or flight response.

When survival depends on the ability to defend ourselves or flee, fight or flight is a necessary evil. But, the physiological impact of fight or flight can easily be considered a foundation on which stress related medicine is built. Stress has far-reaching, detrimental effects on our health in general, but stress also suppresses the immune system; and this is something to consider if you are trying to rebuild your immune system as someone living with HIV.

In stressful situations, adrenaline and norepinephrine, stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands, are released into the body and cause physiological changes. We begin to sweat. Our heart rate and respiratory rate increases. A portion of our blood supply is diverted away from our digestive tract, hence halting digestion and elimination, and is redirected into our muscles, which require extra energy in a survival situation. Our senses, impulses and reactions become sharper and faster. Even the sensation and perception of pain diminishes. In addition to adrenaline and norepinephrine, cortisol is released into the body; high cortisol levels are known to suppress the immune system. This can certainly be a concern in someone already managing compromised immune function.

Can imagine the long term effects on a body in frequent or chronic fight or flight mode? According to the Mayo Clinic, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system—and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones—can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment.”

On the kinder, gentler side of the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest.” When activated, digestive functions increase, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates lower, and circulation normalizes, sending blood to the internal organs. Parasympathetic processes help to promote homeostasis, or balance, they induce a restorative rest; giving your body the ability to work to its maximum achievable potential and promote self-healing. Swedish massage is known to induce a parasympathetic state.

Studies in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the effects of Swedish massage on the body’s hormonal response and immune function. Researchers concluded that Swedish massage produces measurable biological effects and may have a positive effect on mood and the immune system. Dr. Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical Center, reviewed the positive effects of massage therapy on biochemistry. In studies in which cortisol was assayed either in saliva or in urine, significant decreases were noted in cortisol levels. Serotonin and dopamine levels were also reviewed. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter–which means that it does not stimulate the brain. Adequate amounts of serotonin are necessary for a stable mood and to balance any excessive excitatory neurotransmitter firing in the brain. Dopamine helps with depression as well as focus. In studies in which serotonin and dopamine were assayed in urine, an average increase of twenty-eight percent was noted for serotonin and an average increase of thirty-one percent for dopamine. These studies combined suggest the stress-alleviating effects of massage therapy on a variety of medical conditions and stressful experiences.

Much of my own practice revolves around stress reduction and alleviating the symptoms associated with chronic anxiety. While complex, specialized treatments certainly have their place given certain circumstances, I cannot stress the importance of Swedish massage enough. I believe that physiological balance and restorative rest are important steps on the path to overall wellness.


Robert Zukowski is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.