Depression and the Stress Response System, Part III

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Depression and the Stress Response System, Part III

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Dear Readers:

In the first part of this series, I introduced the concept of depression and its relationship to touch deprivation and a sluggish stress response system. Last time, I looked at different types of depression and the consequences of living with this disorder. This month, I will discuss treatment options, including, of course, massage.

Most types of depression can be treated successfully: Up to 90 percent of all depression patients eventually find a treatment that significantly improves their quality of life. A combination of medical intervention and psychotherapy appears to be the most effective way of treating most types of depression.

Antidepressants - Medications used for depression usually fall into one of three categories: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) or tricyclics. These classes of medication aim to make neurotransmitters more easily accessible in the mood-determining areas of the brain. SSRIs, such as Prozac and Zoloft, work by preventing the recycling of secreted serotonin into axon terminals. In other words, serotonin lingers in synapses for longer than it normally would, which reinforces its power to work. Tricyclic antidepressants, including amytriptaline, essentially do the same, although they do not focus specifically on serotonin. MAOIs, such as Nardil and Parate, limit the action of an enzyme that would normally break down and clear away secretions of neurotransmitters. Lithium is used specifically to treat bipolar depression. Rather than altering levels of neurotransmitter reuptake or recycling, lithium works simply to "smooth out" mood swings.

Antidepressants are effective for most people, but they have two major disadvantages: They take several weeks to establish any noticeable mood changes, and they tend to produce unpleasant side-effects during the initial adjustment period, including dry mouth, dizziness, constipation, skin rashes, sleepiness or sleeplessness, and restlessness. Side effects usually subside within four to six weeks - about the same time the medication starts to work.

St. John's Wort - This herbal extract has received a lot of attention as a mood enhancer without the side-effects that other antidepressants carry. Early experiments indicate that it might work like SSRIs or tricyclic antidepressants by preventing the reabsorption of neurotransmitters at the synapses. The National Institutes of Health recently began a three-year study of St. John's wort in comparison to amytriptaline for the treatment of mild dysthymia.

Psychotherapy - Psychologists and psychiatrists may also employ various types of "talk therapy" to help patients improve coping skills and reduce the effects and recurrence of depressive episodes. Three major approaches are useful, depending on the personality and needs of the affected individual. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on the patient's skills at managing life and making positive choices. Interpersonal therapy focuses on how relationships color a person's life, for better or worse. Psychodynamic therapy examines how unresolved inner conflicts can affect the way a person makes choices and lives with those choices. Psychotherapy, combined with medication, often works better than medication alone, because it can help the patient take control of a situation - a feeling many depressive people do not often have.

Other Therapies

Light therapy: Individuals living with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) do not need medication or therapy; they need sunlight. Exposure to broad-spectrum lights can help to reduce symptoms.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): Some depression patients do not respond to medication, but the symptoms persist and make their lives miserable. ECT or "shock" therapy may be the best choice for these patients. While this may bring up disturbing memories of the movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," modern ECT is conducted under light anesthesia, and with muscle relaxants to limit uncontrolled contractions. It is not entirely clear why it works, but it can be a highly effective intervention for people who do not get relief from other options.

Massage: Most people suffering from depression will reap several benefits from bodywork. Touch improves the efficiency of the pituitary-adrenal axis. Receiving non sexual, nurturing, non threatening touch is one of the most important ways humans and other mammals have to keep a healthy stress response. Massage moves people from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state. This brings about several physiological and chemical changes in the body, including an increase in serotonin secretion and a decrease in cortisol. Research about how massage affects mood indicates a shift in electroencephalogram (EEG) activation from the right frontal lobe (usually associated with sad affect) to the left frontal lobe (usually associated with happy affect), or at least to a symmetrical reading.1 Massage is one of the few distinctively pleasurable things people can do that is also really good for them. The act of receiving a massage is a step toward self-determination that depressed people can take with little risk of having it backfire.

Be cautious when working with depressed patients. Some clients who receive massage and enjoy its benefits may wish to stop taking their medication; well-meaning massage therapists may view this as a successful outcome and encourage their clients to try it, but balancing medication for depressive people is a difficult business. Only the patient and his or her doctor should be involved in this decision.

Depression often accompanies complex emotional issues that a client may have trouble sorting out. Client-therapist relationships run the risk, in some cases, of becoming distorted when boundaries are not carefully respected. If a massage therapist has a client who is depressive in connection with other problems (for instance, recovering from emotional, physical or sexual abuse), the relationship can be precarious, especially if the client is not getting adequate support outside the massage clinic. In these cases, therapists are obliged to refer clients for other kinds of help, and to prevent the client-therapist relationship from becoming more central to the client's life than it should be.

I will be taking a short break from my column until next May. Until then, many thanks and many blessings.


  1. Field, Tiffany. Touch Therapy. Churchill Livingstone Press, 2000. Page 165.