Stress & Brain Health


Massage therapy has been known to alter the biochemistry of human considerably both closely after massage sessions and over the course of massage treatment periods (CSD). Stress is the body’s natural response to physical and emotional pressure. As living beings, we experience a degree of it everyday. In a series of case studies performed by the Touch Research Institute at Miami School of Medicine and Department of Pharmacology at Duke, massage was shown to reduce job stress, aging stress, and pregnancy stress significantly. By definition, it is “the physical pressure, pull, or other force one thing exerts onto another; strain” (Definition of Stress).

We need stress, but why?

Stress can be both good and bad as it is an essential part of life and affects our bodies in various ways. The body adapts to what happens to itself internally and externally. Anything that threatens the equipoise of its systems working together is what we call “allostatic load or stress” (Fernandez, Alvaro). There is only so much stress that our bodies can undergo until it begins to react and protect itself, triggering a set of natural responses.

The human body produces countless chemicals that serve as an aid in conditions of distress, allowing us to react swiftly or evade any danger. Cortisol reliably increases in production when the body is under stress, and reliably decreases following relaxing therapies (CSD). It allows the body to adjust to many types of stress and potentially improves immune response, memory retention, and attention span for a brief time.

What can too much stress do to the brain?

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that which is seemingly the most feeble against the results of tremendous stress. This area is made up of an immeasurable amount of neurons, which store all of our memories and knowledge, and individually network with other neurons all throughout the brain.


We know that moderation is key for most things. This too is the case for stress. Enduring high stressors for too long is harmful to the hippocampus in several ways. Interaction with aberrantly high levels of cortisol can cause dendrites and synaptic links of neurons to deteriorate. Additionally, abnormally high levels of glucocorticoid, which is a steroid hormone found in almost all vertebrates, can be harmful as it affects the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus (Fernandez, Alvaro). In various instances, these conditions may also cause the percentage of apoptosis, “cell death” or “cell suicide,” to escalate (Definition of Apoptosis). The long-term effects of these chemicals deteriorate this same area of the brain, such as comprehension, ability to retain new memories or information and adjust to new life conditions. Though, these effects can be very harmful, they are not permanent as long as production of these chemicals ceases once they are no longer in need.

We know that the body is like a machine that must be taken care of in order to work properly, that stress affects the body in many ways that may result both positively and negatively, and that our bodies are built to protect and aid itself when threatened. Therefore, it is crucial for our physical and mental wellbeing that we strive to take care of ourselves and keep our personal stress levels low. If massage lowers stress levels, it improves overall well-being throughout the body including the brain.

Published by Emily Dunagan, LMBT


“Definition of Stress”

“Stress and Neural Wreckage: Part of the Brain Plasticity Puzzle” Fernandez, Alvaro.

“Definition of Apoptosis”

CSD “Cortisol decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine increase following Massage Therapy” Touch Research Institutes – University of Miami School of Medicine, and Department of Pharmacology – Duke University Medical School