Health and disease are strongly linked to psychophysiological states. While stress research strongly benefits from standardized stressors, no established protocol focuses on the induction of psychophysiological relaxation. To maintain health, functioning regenerative systems are however likely as important as functioning stress systems.
Thus, the identification of validated relaxation paradigms is needed. Here, we investigated whether standardized massages are capable of reliably inducing physiological and psychological states of relaxation. Relaxation was indicated by changes in high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), a vagally-mediated heart rate variability component, and repeated ratings of subjective relaxation, and stress levels.
Sixty healthy women were randomly assigned to a vagus nerve massage (n = 19), a soft shoulder massage (n = 22), or a resting control group (n = 19). During the intervention, HF-HRV and subjective relaxation increased, while subjective stress decreased significantly in all groups. Both massage interventions elicited significantly higher HF-HRV compared to the control group.
Accordingly, both massage protocols increased psychophysiological relaxation, and may serve as useful tools in future research. However, future work will have to determine which of several protocols might be used as a gold standard to induce a psychophysiological state of relaxation in the laboratory.