7 Best Types of Massage for PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was once considered unique to war veterans, but modern research shows that anyone can experience it. The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 8% of the US population will experience this disorder at some point in their lives. Interestingly, massage therapy may be a worthwhile treatment option for those with PTSD.
The best types of massage for PTSD promote optimal relaxation through gentle forms of massage. Watsu, Shiatsu, and Swedish massage are all examples of therapies that may help lessen the severity of PTSD symptoms. Aromatherapy and chair massage may also prove beneficial.
This article will discuss what PTSD is and what causes it. We’ll also examine the best types of massage for PTSD and what to expect with each one. This information could help you choose a massage type that matches your needs and preferences, resulting in a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition that often occurs after a traumatic episode. However, there is some evidence to support the idea that children can inherit PTSD. This theory means that traumatic life events may have the ability to change our genetic material.
Consequently, some individuals may be genetically inclined to developing PTSD after encountering some form of trauma. Contrary to popular belief, this disorder is not unique to veterans, abused children, or war prisoners. Anyone can develop PTSD as a result of a traumatic event.
Causes of PTSD
While it may be possible to inherit genes that put you at a greater risk of developing PTSD later in life, the most common culprit behind this disorder is emotional pain. A traumatic event such as a death, serious injury, divorce, or break-up can cause a person to enter a deep depression.
Without interference and assistance, a depressed person’s mental state can quickly deteriorate. When this happens, a person may begin to show signs of other mental health disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Naturally, you should consult a psychologist or psychiatrist for a precise diagnosis. Additionally, traumatized individuals must seek immediate counseling and emotional healthcare after surviving an event. Sadly, this is easier said than done.
Many people experience a mix of negative emotions after a traumatic event, including shame and guilt. These feelings can prevent them from seeking professional help and support that they may need to recover and heal.
Symptoms of PTSD
There are quite a few symptoms of PTSD. Some individuals may exhibit all of these symptoms, while others may only show a few. A professional psychologist’s diagnosis is the only way to confirm a suspicion of PTSD. That said, there are a few common signs and symptoms.
Those with this disorder may experience:
- Flashbacks or nightmares about the trauma they experienced
- Avoidance techniques to stay away from places, people, or events that remind the person of previous trauma
- Sudden panic attacks that result in hyperventilation, screaming or crying
- Insomnia or poor-quality sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
These symptoms may present themselves often or every once and awhile. In some cases, they can be challenging to interpret because the afflicted person has forgotten the trauma. Extreme cases of trauma can result in memory loss, leaving only inexplicable triggers and sudden feelings of anxiety that can be difficult to explain.
The best thing you can do if you suspect that you may have PTSD is to contact mental healthcare professionals. They will be able to guide you in the right direction in terms of counseling, coping mechanisms, and potential treatments that may help.
Fortunately, our understanding of PTSD has evolved over the last several decades. We’ve started understanding how this disorder functions and develops, and consequently, we’ve also changed the way we treat it.
One of the most sound treatment options for those with PTSD is counseling. A therapist or counselor (especially one specializing in PTSD therapy) can help you identify your specific triggers and develop coping techniques to overcome those nerve-wracking moments.
Massage therapy could also help. While counseling is an excellent way to verbalize your fears and frustrations and develop a mental plan of defense and attack, it doesn’t do much for the body. Combining therapy with the right type of massage may help those with PTSD enjoy a more comprehensive and useful treatment plan.
But selecting the right type of massage can be tricky. There are many types to choose from, and they all have their pros and cons. Fortunately, we’ve researched dozens of different massage types to find the best ones for PTSD.
Below, you’ll find our picks for the PTSD-friendly massages. Hopefully, this information will help you choose the right one for your unique needs and preferences. Let’s begin!
Watsu is a combination of Shiatsu massage and water massage, or hydrotherapy. Therapists typically administer watsu in a large tub or pool. This tub may be heated to help ease the muscles into a more relaxed state. The heat component of this massage may also cause the skin to flush and become temporarily inflamed.
However, thanks to the surrounding water, both the massage therapist and the client will experience less joint pain and stiffness. When you place an object (or person) in a pool of water with a greater mass, that object may float. The weight and abundance of water help support tired muscles and ease the body into a calm state.
The therapist administering watsu may first help you limber up by posing your body into various positions and instructing you to float onto your back. They may also guide you into underwater stretches and body twists to help relieve muscle tension.
What to Expect
Before heading to your first watsu massage session, you’ll want to prepare your bathing suit and towel. If possible, consider wearing your bathing suit beneath a casual t-shirt and pair of shorts. You may also want to bring a pair of flip-flops or water shoes.
Depending on the therapist, there may be music playing during your watsu sessions. Don’t be afraid to bring your own tunes to share. In most cases, the therapist is thrilled to play the music that helps you relax. It only helps to make their job easier.
During this type of massage, you may experience several precise motions and massage techniques. These could include:
- Intense stretching
- Body rocking
- Slow spinal twists
- Pressure point manipulation
If you’re uncomfortable with close contact and touch, this form of PTSD therapy may not prove beneficial. The experience could incite feelings of anxiety and panic that are counterproductive. It is perfectly normal and natural to require a deeper trust bond with a therapist before committing to watsu massage therapy.
However, suppose you are comfortable taking a dip into a warm, relaxing pool for some quick massage. In that case, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the depth of the benefits you experience.
In addition to feeling very gentle and comforting, this type of massage may help reduce chronic pain, including symptoms related to arthritis. Pregnant women may also experience some amount of relief while engaging in watsu massage.
Aerobic exercise has long been touted as a beautiful form of low-impact exercise for the weak, elderly, or ill. But up until recently, much of that beneficial effect was thought to come from the water’s ability to suspend the body and reduce gravity’s painful pull on achy muscles and joints.
Water immersion may change the way our bodies and, consequently, our brains perceive pain. When combined with quiet meditation, watsu massage could be the ultimate way to escape troubling thoughts and experience sweet stress relief.
Shiatsu, one of the critical tenets of watsu massage, is a bit more intense in its traditional form. It is similar to reflexology and trigger point massage in that it focuses on specific pressure points throughout the body. It originates from Japan and is about a century old.
The term Shiatsu roughly translates to “finger pressure.” Traditional examples of this kind of massage often revolve around intense finger pressure and in-depth knowledge of pressure points. Unlike reflexology (which often focuses on the hands and feet), Shiatsu is typically offered as a full-body massage.
But like most forms of massage therapy, clients can request a targeted, abridged version. It’s vital to remember that lengthier sessions can provide more noticeable benefits and results. Session length is entirely up to you, but a more significant time investment could reap better rewards.
What to Expect
This massage might be best suited to those with chronic pain or muscle tension. If you tend to carry your stress in your shoulders, neck, or back, shiatsu massage can help your “muscle knots” unclench and de-stress.
However, recipients may want to take a safe amount of over-the-counter pain relievers before engaging in their first Shiatsu massage. This therapy can be beneficial, but it can also cause muscle soreness following treatment, until the body adapts.
The amount of pressure applied to sore spots around the body can result in temporary muscle inflammation and increased sensitivity. These sensations often fade away within 24 hours and will ultimately help expedite muscle recovery and healing.
Clients may experience the noticeable benefits of a Shiatsu session up to 72 hours after their session has ended. Some of the long-lasting potential benefits are:
- Increased energy levels
- Decreased fatigue
- Improved focus and mood
- Better sleep quality
Though more research is necessary to confirm the hundreds of anecdotal claims associated with Shiatsu massage, there is some evidence to support the notion that this therapy could help lessen the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Because Shiatsu can also help muscles relax and the body sleep more soundly, it could help individuals with PTSD avoid sleepless nights and enjoy more energy during the daytime. But if this intense form of massage therapy seems intimidating, it may be wise to opt for a comfier option.
Swedish massage is the gentler cousin of Shiatsu and deep tissue therapies. While Shiatsu techniques can range from intense finger prodding to knee, elbow, and full-body pressure, Swedish massage relies on slow, medium-pressure stroking techniques to gradually release tension and promote wellness.
Anatomical knowledge and the concept of Swedish massage relate to one another. Therapists practiced in Swedish massage therapy will apply fluid light pressure and fluid strokes in the direction of the heart. Theoretically, this promotes improved blood flow and oxygenation.
Well-oxygenated blood is crucial for nutrient transfer. An increase in healthy circulation may also help promote faster healing. As such, Swedish massage is prized for its soothing therapeutic effects. These effects can be both physical and mental.
What to Expect
Clients can request a full-body or a targeted Swedish massage. This type of massage lends itself well to partial nudity, though partially-clothed clients can also enjoy it. For maximum results and benefits, direct contact to the area being address is necessary. If you are concerned about modesty – your therapist will always make sure you are completely draped under a sheet or towel, and only the body part currently being addressed will be exposed.
Swedish massage is a slow-paced therapy. A single session can easily last an hour or longer. However, therapists are typically willing to work with clients and may be able to offer shorter sessions, especially when performing targeted massage.
However, one of the critical aspects of Swedish massage is its idle speed and range of motion. Asking for a sped-up version may result in a lower-quality massage and fewer notable benefits.
If Shiatsu techniques leave you feeling more than uncomfortable and deep tissue massage sessions make you feel sore, Swedish massage therapy can be a relief. Many have celebrated this type of massage and claim that it is the most relaxing form of massage. This relaxation is more than skin-deep.
Swedish massage may help you experience:
- Improved mood
- Reduced cortisol levels
- Fewer episodes of insomnia
- Better sleep
- Relief from chronic pain
PTSD can manifest itself as sleepless nights and recurrent worrisome thoughts. When allowed to continue unabated, these symptoms can lead to panic attacks, exhaustion, and a general feeling of poor health.
Swedish massage could be one of the most beneficial massage types for clients with PTSD thanks to its slow motions, gentle nature, and abundance of psychologically-healing benefits. This massage may be bolstered by the use of pleasant-smelling essential oils for aromatherapy.
Have you ever noticed how certain scents can bring specific memories to mind? Some scents can cause you to recollect pleasant events, while others may trigger harrowing PTST memories. Aromatherapy is a type of massage that incorporates therapeutic scents into the therapy setting.
The goal of this addition is to produce a calming, relaxing effect. Clients may share their favorite scents with the therapist before the first session to allow the therapist plenty of time to collect such fragrences and create a uniquely scented atmosphere.
Additionally, it may be helpful to clue the therapist in on any triggering scents. This practice could help clients with PTSD avoid episodes and remain calm throughout the massage session.
It’s also often essential to specify the types of massage techniques you’d like to experience while receiving an aromatherapy massage. After all, this term is a broad one that incorporates several different schools of massage and dozens of techniques.
What to Expect
Because aromatherapy sessions can involve almost any type of massage, nailing down the first session can be a guessing game. Requesting a specific kind of massage can help you develop a pre-game plan and set of expectations, as can a quick consultation or Q&A with your therapist.
If you’re ready for skin-on-skin contact, you may want to insist on watsu or deep tissue massage. But if you’re a little hesitant to let someone touch you, you may want to start with a fully-clothed chair massage or reflexology session.
One of the significant benefits of aromatherapy is that it’s entirely customizable. An aromatherapy session can be everything and anything you want it to be. So long as you communicate your preferences, goals, and triggers, you’re likely to enjoy the meditative effects of this scent-focused treatment.
Anyone struggling with depression, stress, or anxiety could benefit from an aromatherapy session. This type of massage is often recommended to those with mood disorders, including individuals with PTSD.
In addition to positive mental changes, aromatherapy may also result in relaxed muscles, reduced chronic pain, and improved sleep quality. Naturally, the specific benefits are bound to vary.
The total physical benefits you can expect to experience may rely on the specific type of massage you opt for. Reflexology-based techniques can be incredibly soothing, while deep tissue massages can result in unrivaled pain relief.
You don’t have to undress to enjoy a relaxing massage. Chair massage could be the optimal solution to an aversion to the idea of disrobing or skin-to-skin contact. Therapists often perform chair massage on fully-clothed individuals.
Session times vary greatly and can last anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour. Therapists that provide chair massage services may specialize in many types of massage, including Swedish, Thai, deep tissue, or Shiatsu.
What to Expect
Chair massage is unique. You can go out and seek it, have it come to you, or you can purchase a hi-tech automated massage chair for long-term private massage. If you become a fan of professional chair massage services, you may want to upgrade to private, at-home sessions.
If you find that your thirst for pain-relieving, muscle-relaxing massage only intensified after these initial experiences, you may want to consider investing in an automated machine-operated massage chair. Zero gravity options are incredibly alluring.
Chair massage therapists may be familiar with several massage techniques and types. Be sure to discuss and request your desired kind of massage (Shiatsu, deep tissue, Swedish) before scheduling your first session.
As you can probably guess, chair massage comes with a set of distinct benefits. Individuals with PTSD may struggle to form meaningful relationships and emotional connections with others, especially those they’ve never met before. This inclination can make massage therapy challenging.
Chair massage ensures that clients can maintain a certain amount of distance during their therapy. This separation can be comforting for some and may allow for a greater depth of trust to slowly develop between the therapist and patient.
Chair massage is also notable for its customizable setting, session duration, technique type, and administration method. After all, there aren’t many types of massage that you can sit back and enjoy courtesy of either an automated chair or a professional pair of hands.
Reflexology is a type of massage therapy that harkens back to ancient times. It is thousands of years old and is practiced all over the world. While many people in the US may associate reflexology with foot massage, reflexology is actually a philosophy regarding the human body.
Reflexologists believe that the body contains specific stimulation points. These specialized therapists theorize that when these points are massaged, they produce specific positive effects resulting in pain relief, increased energy, and improved immunity.
A modern reflexology session typically involves hand, foot, and arm massage. However, full-body options are also an accessible option. Those with PTSD could benefit from a reflexology appointment, especially those who are open to new philosophies and spiritual ideas.
What to Expect
Your first session may feel like your first day at school. Your therapist may ask you several questions about your medical history and personal preferences before answering any questions you may have about reflexology and how it works.
This early communication helps to establish a bond and sense of trust. During this initial session, your therapist may perform a small amount of massage to gauge your pain levels and flexibility. They may focus on chronic pain areas during later sessions.
If you feel comfortable sharing your PTSD status with your massage therapist, they may incorporate specific techniques to help you experience a more tranquil and positive frame of mine.
Reflexology typically incorporates medium-pressure massage in the form of long strokes or targeted kneading. It offers benefits for both the mind and body.
As with all treatments, results vary from person to person. Still, reflexology could provide benefits not often encountered during other forms of massage therapy.
Some of the most common advantages of reflexology include:
- Reduced feelings of anxiety
- Lessened sensations of pain
- A more positive disposition and outlook
- A sense of calmness throughout the body
- Improved feeling of well-being
There are many varied psychological benefits clients could experience. Consequently, some outpatient therapists recommended reflexology to those with PTSD. However, this massage is typically gentle. It may not penetrate thick muscle knots as deep tissue therapies do.
Deep Tissue Massage
If you’re experiencing a combination of chronic pain and PTSD, deep tissue massage could be the best choice. Though it is a more intense form of therapy than many other treatments listed above, it could also prove to be the most pain-relieving.
Severe arthritis or chronic pain can worsen the symptoms of PTSD. As such, managing your physical well-being is just as crucial as caring for your mental health. Deep tissue massage involves lengthy sessions on a massage table.
Therapists may incorporate aromatherapy or soothing music during sessions. These additions could help clients relax their minds during therapy. Deep tissue massage can be painful, especially if your muscles are sore and achy. However, this pain is only temporary.
What to Expect
In the majority of cases, deep tissue massages are performed on semi-nude or nude clients. However, therapists are often willing to work with you and perform massages based on your comfort level.
Though deep tissue massage is always an intensely powerful form of therapy, it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing one. That said, you may want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever directly before or after each deep tissue session.
Many people who enjoy regular deep tissue massages report feeling achy and sore the next day or during the session. Therapists who perform this type of massage supply significant pressure to muscle tissue. This intense massage can cause temporary soreness and inflammation.
However, improved circulation is a side effect of this brief discomfort, and with better circulation comes a flood of healing white blood cells. The long-term result is less pain, better focus, and improved mood, but these are just a few of the potential benefits.
Athletes suffering from strained muscles or torn ligaments often end up receiving deep tissue massage therapy. It is a type of massage that focuses on physical healing and rapid recovery.
If physical issues currently hinder your pathway to mental recovery, this could be the right choice for you. Some of the most common benefits of deep tissue massage include:
- Lowered blood pressure
- Increased circulation
- Long-term reduction of chronic pain
- Reduced fibromyalgia symptoms
As always, this type of massage is most effective in helping to treat PTSD if paired with counseling and therapy. Additionally, patients should expect a little soreness and discomfort after each session and may want to prepare themselves with over-the-counter pain relievers or a warm bath.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may be more common than you think. It typically occurs after a traumatic event, but symptoms may begin to appear months or years after the initial trauma, making a recovery and diagnosis exceptionally challenging.
While counseling is the primary treatment for PTSD, massage may be an exceptional companion form of therapy. The best types of massage for PTSD tend to allow the body to achieve maximum relaxation, thereby encouraging the mind to follow suit.
Watsu, Shiatsu massage, and Swedish massage are excellent examples of massage options for PTSD. But preferences and needs will help you decide.
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS
Compliment Your Body, LLC
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY. 10018
Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate chair massage and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. We are local to New York City and pride ourselves on our team of local therapists. All of our therapists are hand-picked and thoroughly vetted. We don’t hire over the phone, we meet our team on the field.
Compliment Your Body believes that care is a circle. We care for our team, our team cares for the participants, and we all care for the community!
For every single in-home or chair massage, Compliment donates three meals to a New Yorker in need through our relationship with Food Bank For New York City.
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- Acupuncture Massage College: History of Shiatsu Massage
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Symptoms of PTSD
- Healthline: Everything to Know About Watsu Therapy
- Healthline: Is a Deep Tissue Massage What Your Muscles Need?
- Healthline: Reflexology 101
- Healthline: What Are the Different Types of Massages?
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Revisiting reflexology: Concept, evidence, current practice, and practitioner training
- Psychology Today: 5 Unique Ways to Ease PTSD
- UC San Diego Health: Large Study Reveals PTSD Has Strong Genetic Component Like Other Psychiatric Disorders
- US Department of Veteran Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD | How Common is PTSD in Adults?
- WebMD: What Are the Treatments for PTSD?
- WebMD: What Is Cortisol?
- Well+Good: The Benefits of Swedish Massage Prove That It Is the Most Relaxing Form Around
- Verywell Health: What You Can Expect From a Shiatsu Massage
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