Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

Stressed? Here’s why bodywork like acupuncture and massage can help

by Kells McPhillips

When stress comes rushing in, you probably reach for things at home to find comfort. A cup of tea. Your favorite movie. A home-cooked meal. But if you’re searching for new ways to take care of your mental well-being, leaving your house and heading to the masseuse or acupuncturist may be just what you need.

Bodywork—or therapeutic techniques that involve (go figure) working with the body—can be a great tool for stress management. While bodywork comes in many forms, acupuncture and massage are among the most researched modalities for busting stress and introducing relaxation. Below, two practitioners explain the basics of their craft. Plus, they share why acupuncture and massage are so beneficial.

Acupuncture for stress management

“Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to promote balance and alleviate various health issues,” says Dr. Nicole Glathe, an acupuncturist and doctor of Chinese Medicine.

While some people may seek acupuncture to lessen the pain and discomfort of certain chronic conditions or injuries, others simply sign up for the ancient practice’s mood-boosting qualities.

By targeting specific acupuncture points associated with relaxation, this therapy may encourage the body to release endorphins, natural painkillers, and mood elevators. It also may help to lower stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, helping the body turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, aka your relaxation and digestion system.

If you have access to an acupuncture studio, try booking an appointment and letting your acupuncturist know that your goal is to relax and unwind. “Your practitioner will ask you a comprehensive set of questions, covering everything from your stress-related symptoms to any underlying health concerns, as well as your health history,” says Dr. Glather. “Acupuncture is a holistic medicine, meaning practitioners take into account symptoms that might even seem unrelated to the issue at hand. This will enable the practitioner to tailor the treatment specifically to your needs.”

If the cost of acupuncture is prohibitive for you and your family, there are many community acupuncture clinics that offer treatment on a sliding scale.

Massage for stress relief

For the unfamiliar, massage consists of a series of compression and stroking techniques administered by an expert. “Massage can reduce stress hormones and deactivates the body's fight-or-flight response,” says Juliette Wilk, CMT, of Life Balance Massage. “At the same time, it can active the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin, which work together to calm the nervous system, promote relaxation, and reawaken the mind-body connection, all of which create a sense of mental and physical well-being.”

Wilk recommends telling your massage therapist that you want to focus on decompression during your session. “By openly expressing your preferences, areas of concern, and comfort levels, you equip your therapist to meet your specific needs, leading to a more satisfying and effective massage session. Clear communication with your massage therapist during a session can turn a good experience into a deeply healing one,” she says.

Relaxing self-massages to try at home

If a massage or an acupuncture session isn’t currently in your budget, there are ways to relieve your stress at home. Wilk recommends investing in a foam roller and a tennis ball so you can create your own little massage studio at home. Once you have your equipment ready, follow this three-step self-massage.

1. Full-body foam roll

A basic foam roller is a great way to recreate the benefits of massage at home,” says Wilk. “You can use it to roll out the big muscle groups like those found in your back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.”

• Lying down, place the roller horizontally beneath your back. Bend your knees and use yourfeet to move the foam roller up and down your back, if that feels good.

2. Target stubborn knots with a tennis ball

Because a tennis ball is smaller than a foam roller, it’s great for targeting specific knots that you may miss with just a foam roller.

• “Place the ball between your body and the floor or wall and lean into it at a pressure that feels good. Hold for at least a minute or as long as it continues to feel good,” says Wilk.

3. Practice mindful stretching

“You can never go wrong with mindful stretching,” says Wilk. “Scan your body for areas that feel tight and congested, and stretch them in any way the muscle wants to be stretched (even if it looks strange, just go with the flow).”

• Unroll a yoga mat and breathe through any stretches that feel good in your body. When you find a good spot, hold the stretch for a minute, slowing your inhales and exhales.

Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other mental or physical health condition. The use of Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a health condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider. Calm Health is a mental wellness product.

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