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Massage & SAD

Can Massage Help Relieve the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Any type of regular massage therapy, along with other practices such as bright light therapy, and regular exercise, has been proven to decrease the symptoms of SAD.

In these dog days of summer, while many of us are enjoying the sun and heat, there are some who already smell autumn in the air, awakening feelings of dread and anxiety around how they will survive the coming fall and winter months. Those who feel this way may suffer from a mood disorder labeled by the American Psychological Association (APA) as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

To qualify as a sufferer of SAD, you must meet all four of the APA’s diagnostic criteria:

  1. Significant changes in mood leading to depression during a particular time of year;
  2. A remission of mood changes and depression during a particular time of year;
  3. This pattern of depression and remission must have occurred for at least two years with no major depressive episodes having occurred outside of the winter months;
  4. Seasonal mood changes and depressions must outnumber other depressive episodes throughout a person’s lifetime. (Seasonal Affective Disorder, Mayo Clinic).

SAD mood disorders usually present with the following signs:

  • Increased stress
  • Increased feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased cravings for sweets
  • Increased weight gain
  • Increased tendency to oversleep
  • Decreased energy and motivation
  • Decreased concentration and creativity
  • Decreased interest in social activities

Dr. Norman Rosenthal was the first contemporary researcher to record symptoms of SAD. In 1984, having moved from South Africa to New York, Rosenthal wondered why he experienced sudden changes in his mood during the winter months. Rosenthal experimented with increasing his exposure to higher light intensity, and his mood improved (Seasonal Affective Disorder, Mayo Clinic).

Bright light therapy has become a common treatment for SAD (Avery, 2005); however, other researchers, such as Andrea Rogers with the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai, suggest that controlling the symptoms of SAD is more complex because SAD symptoms are related to shifts in our biological clocks. Reacting to changes in the amount of sunlight available, our pineal gland—located in the brain approximately right behind what we call our “third eye”—begins secreting excessive amounts of Melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep, but when released in excessive amounts may cause depression (Cedars-Sinai, 2008). So in addition to using bright light therapy, these researchers recommend that SAD sufferers receive prescriptions for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (Modell, 2005). These anti-depressant drugs have helped to regulate communication within the brain, and eased the symptoms of depression. A number of people, however, are wary of beginning an anti-depressant drug regimen because of the negative side effects that these drugs can cause.

Presently, 9% of the population of the Northern U.S. suffer from SAD, and SAD is more prevalent among women (Breaking News: 1 in 5 suffers from SAD); more importantly, Modell (2005) reports that up to 35% of those sufferers have had to be hospitalized, and some have considered suicide.

So what can SAD sufferers preparing for the arrival of the fall and winter months do in order to control their changes in body and mind? Especially important is what can SAD sufferers who seek a drug-free approach to controlling SAD symptoms do?

For the answer to this question we can look as far back as the Roman Empire for advice. Roman Emperor Tiberius suggested the following steps to take back control:

  • Take massage
  • Exercise
  • Live in rooms of light
  • Avoid heavy food
  • Be moderate in the drinking of wine
  • Strictly avoid frightening ideas
  • Indulge in cheerful conversation
  • Listen to music

(Seasonal Affect Disorder, 2008, University of Maine)

According to Rosenthal (2005) reducing your stress and being around supportive people who make you feel comfortable can help SAD sufferers control their moods. Massage fulfills both of these needs. Massage helps both the body and mind leave the “fight or flight” part of our nervous systems and move into our parasympathetic nervous systems where we can find our natural relaxation response. While stress makes our muscles shorten and tighten, massage does just the opposite by softening and lengthening our muscles. In addition, massage helps balance our endocrine system, which is responsible for the release of hormones. Moreover, for the hour or 90 minutes of your massage you are with a supportive person with whom you feel comfortable.

Peters (2008) points out that many researchers associate SAD with a lack of serotonin, and massage is an ideal substance-free method for increasing serotonin levels. Peters explains that “serotonin plays a role in mood, behavior, body temperature, physical coordination, appetite and sleep. Serotonin is a precursor to the body’s rendering of melatonin.” So massage can be a healthy, drug-free system for controlling the symptoms of SAD.

Aromatherapy, which can be used during massage, is also helpful in controlling the symptoms of SAD. According to Peters (2008), the smells from essential oils can stimulate positive emotions by affecting our limbic system. The essential oils that treat the symptoms of SAD best include; Basil, Orange, Sandalwood, Lemon, Jasmine, Sage, Chamomile, and peppermint (Peters).

So for those who anticipate the coming fall and winter months with dread, don’t wait until winter is upon us to take control; take control now while you still have the energy. For example, consider the following steps:

  1. Book all of your massages now. At least once a month is good, while twice a month is better, booking all your massages now has the added advantage of receiving discounts for buying a massage packet instead of paying for one massage at a time
  2. Change your diet. Eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods
  3. Avoid caffeine and processed sugary foods
  4. Design a regular exercise routine and stick to it no matter how you feel
  5. Research light therapy
  6. Collect music that you love and have it at the ready for emergencies
  7. Learn to meditate
  8. Practice yoga

So the answer to the question “can massage help relieve the symptoms of SAD” is a definite yes, but keep in mind that receiving regular massage should be only one part of a multi-faceted approach to controlling the symptoms of SAD; in addition to scheduling regular massages, practicing the other techniques mentioned above is a vital part of surviving the fall and winter months.

Author: Karen Randolph
Author Information: Massage Therapist and Freelance Writer
Date: April 29, 2009

  1. Avery, DH; Eder, DN; Bolte, MA; Hellekson, CJ; Dunner, DL; Vitiello, MV; Prinz, PN. (2001). Dawn simulation and bright light in the treatment of SAD: a controlled study. Biological Psychiatry 50 (3), 205-216.
  2. Cedars-Sinai. (2008). Six tips to pro-actively reduce SAD. Online. Available at
  3. Modell, J; Rosenthal, NE; Harriett, AE; Krishen, A; Asgharian, A; Foster, VJ; Metz, A; Rocket, CB, Wightman, DS. (2005). Seasonal affective disorder and its prevention by anticipatory treatment with bupropion XL. Biological Psychiatry 58 (8), 658-667.
  4. Peters, D. (2008). How to decrease seasonal affective disorder symptoms. Online. Available at
  5. Rosenthal, J. N. Winter Blues (2005). NY, NY: Guilford.
  6. Seasonal Affect Disorder. (2008) University of Maine
  7. Seasonal Affective Disorder (2008) Mayo Clinic


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