Helping Hands: The Benefits of Massage Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Massage is an ancient practice that has been used in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. Whether part of loving contact between partners, spiritual rituals, or formal medicinal practices, massage is a part of the long and rich history of human communication and healing. Today, massage therapy is gaining increased recognition within the addiction treatment community for its ability to ease physical and emotional distress, nurture the recovery process, and create profound personal transformation.

Easing Withdrawal

Withdrawing from drugs or alcohol can be a difficult and somatically uncomfortable process. Research indicates that massage therapy can facilitate management of withdrawal symptoms, improve sleep and digestion, reduce joint and muscle pain, and create a more positive detoxification experience at the earliest stages of recovery. A study by researchers at the Royal Brisbane Hospital in Australia found that those receiving massage during alcohol detox had lower pulse and respiration rates, as well as reduced “Alcohol Withdrawal Scale scores in the early stages of the detoxification process.” Massage also helps alleviate muscle aches and pains by increasing circulation, relaxing muscle spasms, sending anti-inflammatory signals to muscle cells, and encouraging the production of mitochondria. By reducing the physical distress of withdrawal, your ability to emotionally engage in the recovery process is enhanced and you can experience an improved sense of control over your body.

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Improving Emotional Well-being

Some of the most significant benefits of massage are its ability to improve mood, ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and create feelings of harmony within ourselves and with others. While the exact mechanism by which these phenomena happen remains largely unknown, researchers have observed that massage encourages the release of endorphins and increases mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Massage therapy also augments the release of oxytocin, a remarkable hormone the promotes human bonding and floods our brains at pivotal moments in our lives, including childbirth and when we fall in love. However, even everyday physical touch can invite the oxytocin release, producing a host of psychological benefits such as decreased social inhibitions and fear, enhanced feelings of trust and well-being, and improved self-esteem, optimism, and empathy. Studies confirming that massage significantly increases oxytocin levels have led researchers to believe that massage can even “reduce morbidity and mortality” as the result of psychological distress.

For people in addiction treatment, the emotional benefits of massage are twofold. First, massage can be a central component in the management of psychological disturbances related to withdrawal and the recovery process itself. Massage therapy can also alleviate distress caused by co-occurring mental health disorders that contribute to your addiction and may be used to treat both acute and chronic psychiatric symptoms, fortifying both your overall mental health and your recovery.

Restoring the Mind-Body Connection

Addiction to drugs and alcohol often creates a severe chasm between the body and the mind. As your focus narrows to feeding your addiction, you lose contact with your physical self and are unable to recognize and nurture your somatic needs. As a body-focused therapy, massage allows you to reconnect to your body and pay attention to its sensations, listen to its messages, and honor what it is telling you. This can be particularly important for those whose addictions have been driven by experiences of physical violation, such as sexual assault, childhood abuse, or intimate partner violence, events that can cause you to disconnect from your physical self as a way of coping with the enormity of the trauma. A study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that when trauma-focused psychotherapy was combined with massage, women who experienced PTSD as the result of childhood sexual abuse achieved “remarkable decreases” in number and severity of both psychological and physical symptoms, fewer episodes of dissociation, and an enhanced “sense of inner security and psychotherapeutic progress.” With the guidance of a compassionate and experienced massage therapist, you can begin to heal the fractured relationship you have with your body to rejuvenate your emotional and physical well-being.

Improving Relaxation

Addiction treatment can be an intense process. You are going through a powerfully transformative experience that requires acknowledging hard truths about yourself and working towards meaningful and difficult changes to create freedom from addiction. And you’re going through this without access to your primary coping mechanism—drugs and alcohol. Learning how to reduce stress and create relaxation in healthy ways is critical to nourishing your psychological health throughout treatment and to establishing positive coping skills for ongoing recovery. Massage therapy allows you to experience natural, restorative relaxation and establish inner balance during your time in treatment. In part, this is due to the biochemical effect of massage; massage is well-known to reduce stress hormones, including cortisol, and brings tranquility to the nervous system. But massage is about something more than neurotransmitters and hormones; it’s about the deeply human experience of allowing another person to nurture you in a loving and peaceful way. When you are receiving a massage, nothing is required of you and you can allow your mind and body to relax, knowing that you are safe and cared for and that in this moment, you do not need drugs or alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors to deal with life. And this experience isn’t limited to your time in residential treatment; massage is easily integrated into your continuing care plan, allowing you to access its benefits whenever you want to fortify your recovery.

Massage Therapy at Alta Mira

At Alta Mira, we believe in treating not just the addiction, but the whole person. As such, we use a broad spectrum of evidence-based therapies proven to help establish both sobriety and emotional wellness, and improve your overall quality of life. This commitment to interdisciplinary, holistic care is why we offer massage therapy to all of our clients. We have found that massage is often a vital part of reducing stress, facilitating detoxification, easing pain, and increasing self-awareness, ultimately leading to more rapid, comfortable, and effective addiction recovery. We also recognize that benefits of massage go beyond simply treating addiction; this versatile and time-honored therapy allows you to more deeply connect with your inner self and unlocks your ability to truly nurture your psychological and physical needs. When used within a comprehensive addiction and mental health treatment program, massage can be a path to very real and sustainable healing.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one begin the journey to recovery.