“I’m too busy to relax!” I often say. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Even in this new world shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, time is a scarce commodity. People are stressed and pressed, having to juggle work and homeschooling along with cooking meals and cleaning house — a much more time-consuming process with everyone staying home all the time.
We all know stress can ruin health and bring on disease. Yet, we don’t take the downtime we need to combat it. With a never-ending list of tasks to accomplish, scheduling an hour or two to relax seems like a distant dream.
Lucky for us, it turns out that you only need a few moments of relaxation to experience its stress-relieving benefits. And researchers have identified a particular type of stress release that’s especially effective…
The benefits of a 10-minute massage
Psychologists at the University of Konstanz in Germany discovered that allowing yourself even a few minutes of downtime significantly boosts both mental and physical relaxation and can activate the body’s regenerative system for fighting stress.
The researchers specifically studied how people responded to a 10-minute massage and found that it resulted in higher levels of mental and physical relaxation. They also observed that even 10 minutes of simple rest increased relaxation, although not as much as the massage did.
These findings are the first to indicate that short, easy-to-apply relaxation techniques can greatly reduce both mental and physical stress by boosting the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the body’s regenerative system that wards off stress during times of threat. Launching this relaxation response is essential to protecting health and restoring the body’s balance.
Massage has long been touted as a technique for improving relaxation. But no systematic approach exists to clearly confirm whether it has an effect on the PNS, or whether it can be used to rehabilitate patients suffering from a stress-related disease.
In the University of Konstanz study, researchers tested two different 10-minute massages on human subjects. A head-and-neck massage was designed to actively stimulate the PNS by applying moderate pressure on the vagal nerve, the largest nerve running to the PNS. And a neck-and-shoulder massage with soft stroking movements was designed to determine whether just touch can also be relaxing.
The researchers also observed a control group of participants sitting quietly at a table to examine the effect of rest without massage.
Short rest periods help the mind and body
To gauge physiological relaxation, researchers monitored the heart rate of participants and measured their heart rate variability (HRV), which indicates how flexibly the PNS can respond to changes in the environment. A higher HRV shows the body is more relaxed. Participants were also asked to describe how relaxed or stressed they felt to determine their level of psychological relaxation.
It didn’t matter whether the participants received 10 minutes of rest or 10 minutes of either massage —all of them reported they felt more relaxed and less stressed compared with before the treatments. In fact, all participants showed significant increases in HRV, demonstrating activation of the PNS and physiological relaxation of the body just by resting alone.
However, the physiological effect was stronger when participants received either version of the two massages. This indicates that massage is most effective for boosting the PNS and reducing perceived mental stress.
Maria Meier, a doctoral student in the university’s lab of Neuropsychology and first author on the study, notes that you don’t need a professional massage treatment 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,” she says.
Actually, you don’t even need a partner to get the benefits of a quick massage — you can do it yourself…
How to give yourself a massage
For your head: Start by lowering your shoulders away from your ears and straightening your neck and back. Locate the base of your skull and place the pointer and middle fingers of each hand in the center, fingertips touching. Apply gentle pressure and slide your fingers outward or downward, moving in the direction that feels best. Move your fingers in small circular motions, focusing on the tense spots and areas around them.
You can also massage your scalp by applying light to medium pressure with your fingertips. Move your fingertips around your scalp in small circular motions for 5 minutes, making sure to cover your entire head.
For your neck: There are a couple of ways you can give yourself a neck massage. If you’re experiencing pain on the left side of your neck, bring your left hand to the base of your neck where it meets the shoulder. Then press your index and middle fingers into your neck. Maintaining pressure, glide your fingers up to the base of your scalp, then down again. Do this for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side of your neck.
If the pain is on the right side of your neck, start with your right hand on the right side.
For the second technique, bring both hands to the back of your head, palms facing forward. Place both thumbs at the base of your skill and rub the thumbs in a circular motion. Continue for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
For your shoulders: If you have pain on the left side of your neck or left shoulder, place your right hand on your left shoulder. If the pain is on the right side, do the opposite.
Gently grab your shoulder with your hand and massage as if you were kneading bread. Continue kneading down the top of the shoulder and back up the side of your neck. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
Ten minutes of massage or rest will help your body fight stress — University of Konstanz
How to Ease Pain with Self-Massage — Healthline
What Are the Benefits of a Head Massage? — Healthline