The effects of stress – and how massage can help

By: Katherine Pugliese, RYT, RMT

Katherine is passionate about relieving stress through massage and through self-care, which for her includes writing and drawing

Anxiety and depression represent two of the leading health concerns in our society today (Kreitzer, M.J. (2016), “Anxiety and Depression”). Many of us face daily demands and what at times can seem to be overwhelming challenges that cause uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness.

What is stress?

Nervousness, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, digestive issues, mental fog, physical pain… these are just some of the many symptoms and emotions that can occur in the body when it is attempting to cope with these disorders. Although anxiety and depression are two different disorders, in many instances the two go hand-in-hand. Meaning, it is not uncommon for someone with anxiety also to develop symptoms of depression, or vice versa (Croft, H. (2016), “Relationship Between Depression and Anxiety”). And all these symptoms are included in what we think of as “stress”.

How stress affects our health

Numerous studies have shown that nearly 90% of today’s health concerns stem from stress (Malays, J. (2008), “Life Event, Stress and Illness”). Due to the growing demands and pressures of our modern day-to-day lives, many people are overwhelmed and stressed. Research also shows that when the body is under prolonged stress, we are at high risk of developing anxiety and depression (American Psychological Association, “Understanding Chronic Stress”).

Now, what exactly happens when the body is under stress? Well, first of all, the body does not function properly and goes into what is called the stress response, or ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Stress and hormones

Specifically, under stress: 

  • your heart beats faster and your muscles tense
  • your breathing becomes shallow and you start to perspire
  • the flow of blood to your internal organs and extremities decreases
  • the functioning of your immune and digestive systems is inhibited

When you’re anxious your body mobilizes for action. But with no need to run away, your body remains revved up, in a state of alarm. Our bodies are simply not designed to function under a constant state of stress. Thus, over time, the stress response takes a toll on your physical health, energy, mood and general sense of well-being. To prepare for taking action, stress hormones are pumped into the bloodstream. One hormone in particular, called ‘cortisol’, is pumped in large amounts and over time can have negative effects on our body. Since most of today’s problems don’t require this level of energy, high levels of cortisol linger in our system.

This suppresses the immune system, increases blood sugar levels, keeps our muscles tense, causes digestive issues, and increases the risk of developing anxiety and depression.

The relaxation response

Except for when you’re actually in physical danger, your health and sense of well-being depend on your body’s relaxation response, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. This is the state that allows our bodies to work optimally on all levels. Like the stress response, the relaxation response is initiated in the brain, and it works to reduce the stress response. 

Relaxation and hormones

Specifically, the relaxation response includes the following:

  • your heart rate slows down and your blood pressure stabilizes
  • your immune system is boosted
  • your brain waves slow down
  • your digestive processes normalize
  • your quality of sleep improves
  • you experience a sense of well-being 

When your body relaxes after you’ve been chronically tense and stressed, you actually feel like yourself again or discover a new and delightful sense of ease. Your mental functioning improves and you literally come to your senses, meaning you become more aware of what you’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. As a result, you can think more clearly and feel much more calm and in the present moment. 

Massage and the relaxation response

You may be wondering where massage fits into all of this. Massage is increasingly being offered along with standard treatments for a wide range of medical conditions and situations. Studies of the benefits of massage demonstrate that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain, and muscle tension via the body’s relaxation response.

Massage stimulates feel-good hormones and important cellular changes

The relaxation response produces certain hormones throughout the body as well; however, these have positive, healing effects on our body. The ‘feel-good’ hormones secreted in particular during this relaxation state are: serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. Massage stimulates the parasympathetic, or relaxation, response and has a direct impact on the release of these feel-good hormones. Studies have shown that a 60-minute massage can lower cortisol ‘stress hormone’ levels by as much as 50% (Kiefer, D. (2016), “Massage Therapy Styles and Health Benefits”). The chemicals and cellular changes that occur in the body offer even more evidence of the power of massage therapy. Touch stimulates pressure receptors in the skin and sends a message to the brain to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that lowers our levels of cortisol, or ‘stress hormone’, and the brain interprets that as us feeling trusting and positive, allowing us to build relationships and be social and connected. When we receive massage therapy it also increases serotonin and regulates dopamine, which equals better memory, better learning, and enhanced mood; and it also has an antidepressant and anti-anxiety effect. Another group of hormones released when receiving massage are endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers; endorphins generate good feelings, while reducing anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to pain.

A powerful tool for health

Massage can be a powerful tool to help you take charge of your health and well-being, whether you have a specific condition or are looking for stress relief. The body and the brain are incredibly sensitive but incredibly resilient. Stress undeniably takes its toll on them, but there are measures you can take to mitigate this impact. You can intervene on your own behalf and your body will respond and turn around and heal itself. The emotional balance brought about by massage can be just as vital and valuable as its physical benefits.

Take time for yourself

Massage therapy provides a safe and nurturing time for individuals to relax, refocus, and find clarity; increase awareness of the mind-body connection; boost confidence, and enhance self-image and self-worth. In an under-touched, over-stressed society, receiving massage is essential to our health and well-being. Safe, nurturing touch helps fulfill the need for human contact like the comforting touch we once received at birth. If you haven’t done so already, perhaps it time to try massage and experience its very powerful healing and positive benefits for yourself.

Original drawings by Katherine Pugliese


Kreitzer, M.J. (2016), “Anxiety and Depression.” Retrieved from:

Croft, H. (2016), Relationship between Depression and Anxiety. Retrieved from:

Malays, J. (2008), “Life Event, Stress and Illness.” Retrieved from:

American Psychological Association, “Understanding Chronic Stress.” Retrieved from:

Kiefer, D. (2016), “Massage Therapy Styles and Health Benefits.” Retrieved from:

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About Body Poets Massage Therapy

Three-time nominee and 2016 winner of Top Massage Clinic in Ottawa! At Body Poets Massage Therapy, we are committed to excellence in client care. We provide therapeutic, sports, pre- and post-natal, wellness, cupping, hot stone, ART, Thai massage, and more in a convenient, peaceful, downtown Ottawa location with free client parking. We are FSCO-registered and can bill your auto insurance company directly for treatment after a motor vehicle accident. We also bill directly to Great West Life and Green Shield. Our flagship office at 504 Kent Street in Ottawa is close to the Queensway and easy to reach by car, foot, bike or bus. Our satellite clinic in Almonte, Ontario is cozy and charming. Our online booking system makes it simple for you to reserve your appointment at any time. And our network of like-minded health professionals means we can refer you to practitioners in other fields who meet your needs for quality care. Step into the circle of care, at Body Poets.,,

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