A massage feels good, but what causes those feel-good feelings, and how can we use the bodywork to further elevate our happiness?
To begin with, we must first understand the neurochemicals associated with this bliss. The human body is blessed with the ability to produce its own happiness hormones, and there are steps we can take to help trigger their release.
Our brain has self-produced neurochemicals that turn the pursuits and struggles of life into pleasure and make us feel happy. The acronym DOSE (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins) is used to identify the four natural hormones most responsible for those feel-good feelings. Here’s a brief take on what they are, what they do, and how we can increase their presence and effectiveness.
Dopamine: the pleasure-reward hormone
Secreted by the hypothalamus in anticipation of rewards, dopamine is a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter. It drives our brain’s reward system and stimulates pleasure-seeking behavior, motivating us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs… and giving us a surge of reinforcing pleasure as we achieve them.
Before your massage, set your therapeutic goals for the session, from freer movement and posture improvement to enhanced performance and less pain. You will usually have to break big bodywork goals down into smaller ones. In this way, you will get a small dopamine boost upon reaching each of the smaller goals. Your brain can celebrate with a hit of dopamine each time it anticipates reaching the finish line of that goal. To avoid a dopamine hangover, continue to stimulate the release of this happiness hormone by setting a new goal prior to achieving the current one.
For example, if you have a chronic neck crick that’s affecting your sleep and impairing your driving due to lack of head rotation, take note of how much better your neck feels on the drive home from your massage. Just the anticipation of moving better will enhance dopamine production and, in turn, the effectiveness of the massage session.
Oxytocin: the hug-it-out hormone
Good, empathetic bodywork in a warm, friendly environment is just the ticket to help form social bonds that keep your oxytocin flowing. Over a series of sessions, oxytocin enhances intimacy and trust, contributing to healthy client relationships and improved therapeutic outcomes. In fact, researchers have found that interpersonal touch not only stimulates oxytocin release, but also reduces cardiovascular stress and enhances immune function. (Gutkowski, et al.)
Other studies have shown that gentle massage with the intent of pampering the client better enhances oxytocin release. (Vigotsky, Bruhns). If the situation permits, a platonic, post-session hug helps give you an additional feel-good oxytocin buzz.
Serotonin: the happy hormone
Serotonin, another mood-boosting neurotransmitter, was made famous by the invention of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants, which increase the brain’s serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter directly influences dopamine- the chemical that makes you feel good- so it’s important to know how to trigger it.
The most effective and natural way to boost serotonin is through exercise, biosocial bonding, and good bodywork. Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep on the therapy table even when receiving vigorous massage, as the production of serotonin is a key component of sleep.
Reflecting on past therapeutic achievements also helps your mood as you re-live the experience and take pride in the goals you have achieved.
Endorphins: the pain-killing hormones
Endorphins are released by the brain, spinal cord, and pituitary gland in response to stressful situations, perceived threat, or pain. They temporarily buffer pain in much the same way as drugs such as morphine and codeine and are known to bring on feelings of euphoria (such as a “runner’s high”) during vigorous exercise. Working in conjunction with serotonin, endorphins also help alleviate anxiety and depression.
Researchers have found slow, sustained deep-tissue work best stimulates the release of endorphins, causing the brain to block the pain. In the beginning, endorphins only mask the client’s discomfort, but with each session, the brain begins changing its mind about the pain as confidence in the therapeutic intervention increases.
Helping happiness hit home
Our bodies are home to an intricate hormonal system that constantly works for our survival. This system produces feel-good chemicals as the motivation and reward for taking steps toward what’s good for us. Together, these hormones create a desirable brain state for the individual. Getting good bodywork tailored to your needs helps tilt the balance away from stress and toward relaxation and healing, by helping to give a boost to these essential happiness hormones.
1. Gutkowska, J., Jankowski, M., & Antunes-Rodrigues, J. (2014). The role of oxytocin in cardiovascular regulation. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 47(3), 206-214.
2. Vigotsky, A., & Bruhns, R. (2015) The role of descending modulation in manual therapy and its analgesic implications: a narrative review. Pain Research and Treatment.