If you’ve ever found yourself staring at the ceiling at 3am, you’ll know all too well that your body and mind can sometimes do battle with each other. Your body might feel weighty with exhaustion, but your mind? Wide awake, fixed on how tired you’ll be if you don’t get at least another two hours’ sleep before your alarm goes off.
It can work the other way around, too. Your tired mind wills your tense body to relax, sometimes making you even more tense. So, what can you do about it?
It’s always best to contact your GP first when it comes to persistent sleep problems. They can help rule out any underlying medical causes and take you through the basics of sleep hygiene.
But the good news is that whatever’s keeping you up at night, there’s a chance regular massage therapy can help. From insomnia to depression and anxiety, experts have frequently spoken of the benefit of combining complementary therapies like massage with other GP-prescribed medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Here’s our guide to all things sleep, stress and massage.
How to turn your mind off before sleep
That melt-into-the-sofa feeling when you accidentally fall asleep while watching TV? It’s something called ‘the relaxation response’ in action. When your mind and body relax together, your body responds. Your heart and breathing rate slows and your muscles relax.
So far, pretty obvious; we all know what it feels like to relax.
But here’s the thing. When we’re anxious or experiencing high levels of stress, we maintain a state that’s the exact opposite: the stress response. It’s our body’s in-built defence mechanism to protect us from threats, real and perceived. It’s a useful reflex that’s literally kept humankind going, powering the heart-racing instinct to swerve when a car races towards you, for example.
The difficulty is when this state is activated for too long or too intensely. It can negatively affect our health in all sorts of ways: physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Chronic stress can manifest in everything from grinding your teeth and catching more colds, to feeling hopeless and avoiding activities you used to enjoy. And you guessed it, insomnia.
How massage triggers your body’s relaxation response
Studies show that human touch activates the vagus nerve, lowering brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. In one by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants were told to expect a painfully loud blast of white noise while their brain activity was measured. They then repeated the experiment, but asked the participants’ partners to stroke their arm. They found that this simple touch lowered activity in stress-related areas in the brain.
It follows then, that a massage – typically at least 60-minutes of touch therapy – works to switch off the stress response in the same way. Sweeping, slow massage strokes invite the body to deeply relax. This can be a surprisingly cathartic experience for some as stress literally leaves the body.
Regular massage strengthens your body’s ability to relax at other times by activating the relaxation response more regularly. When external stress is ongoing, learning to relax is like learning any other skill: it takes practice, and regularity is key to that.
What is a sleep massage?
Unlike some more energising styles, sleep massages use slow, long and gliding strokes to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. They’re best booked close to bedtime, and typically involve calming massage oil blends incorporating lavender, clary sage and chamomile essential oils.
Urban’s at-home Neom Sleep massage also includes an optional guided meditation to help you focus on your breathing and mentally visualise parts of your body becoming more relaxed.
Can a sleep massage help you sleep?
Massage has been anecdotally known to help with sleep for years, and now research is starting to back it up too. Studies have tended to focus on particular types of insomnia related to specific issues. For example, it’s been shown to help post-menopausal women whose sleep is disrupted by changes in hormone levels.
A Taiwanese study also demonstrated that traditional Chinese massage Tui na, while energising in style, is a safe treatment for those with obstructive sleep apnea, helping with quality of life, snoring and sleepiness during the day.
What’s the best massage for sleep?
Put on some relaxing music, dim the lights, close your laptop and get ready to close the tabs in your mind, too.
Our relaxing massage works to take your stress levels down a gear with long, calming strokes that calm the nervous system. Expect a drop in tension and a cathartic release of long-held tension.
Follow-up your treatment with a glass of water and flop into bed for a deep and peaceful sleep.
If stiff, tight muscles keep you up at night, a deep tissue massage booked earlier in the day (not immediately before bed) might be just what you need.
This treatment, as the name suggests, uses a gradually increasing pressure to reach the deeper layers of the muscle. It aims to reduce tension and increase blood flow in the muscles to kick start the body’s natural healing process and ease discomfort.
Why can’t I sleep after a deep tissue massage?
One thing to bear in mind with deep tissue massage for sleep is that some people find the strong pressure to be energising, rather than soporific. This is because the depth of the massage can – to your body – feel like you’ve had a workout, ultimately keeping you awake. If that’s the case for you, consider booking a deep tissue massage in the afternoon. You’ll still get the tension-melting benefits that’ll help at night, but without disrupting your sleep.
If you’re looking for a dreamy massage that cocoons you in earthy, herbaceous goodness, look no further than a CBD massage.
CBD is one of many components that make up the cannabis sativa plant. Unlike THC, the component that produces a high, it’s largely non-psychoactive and therefore doesn’t induce a high. In a CBD massage, it’s applied topically to the skin, concentrated around specific areas of tension.
Our at-home CBD massage is delivered in partnership with master CBD blenders, Gaia Guru. Their full-spectrum CBD oils and balms are massaged into the skin using a pressure of your choice. Your therapist will adapt the treatment to suit you, so you can ask for something sleep-inducing rather than powerful if you’re booking just before bedtime.
Reflexology foot massage works by targeting pressure points in your feet to indirectly stimulate different areas in the body. It’s a great alternative to a full-body massage if you don’t quite feel ready for one yet, or you spend a lot of time on your feet during the day. In one study of patients with acute coronary syndrome (ACS), it was shown to help significantly with sleep when combined with a foot bath.
Some people find that having one area of the body to mentally focus on helps the rest of your body to completely relax. It allows your attention to be absorbed and so before you know it, your shoulders, jaw and scalp let go of tension, too. It’s ideal when combined with a body scan meditation before bed.
How to give yourself a foot massage to help you sleep:
Free, simple and instantly soothing, the humble foot massage is an ideal ritual for stressful times. Here’s how to do it properly.
- Apply lotion or oil to your hands
- Hold the top of each foot with both hands and use small circular motions with your thumbs on each toe, working down to the base of your foot and right up to the ankle
- Do the same to the base of your foot, applying more pressure
- Gently rotate the feet and toes
- Firmly but gently press the pad of the foot