a photo of stress being erased

Stress related to COVID-19, the economy and social differences is at a high point, so it is crucial to know how to relax.

The research is in: There is no longer any doubt that the stresses and traumas of our daily lives are having a significant negative impact on our health and well-being—both bodily and brain—in our clients as well as in our own lives as therapists.

According to a report called the Household Pulse Survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau, more than 33% of Americans reported feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety in July 2020 (compared with 11% in July 2019.) Another study showed that 40.9% of 5,470 respondents reported feeling adverse mental or behavioral health, including anxiety or depressive disorder; with 13.3% of respondents reporting having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

MTS Need to Know How to Relax

In the session room with his massage clients, Larry has difficulty focusing and loses track of information that used to be right at his fingertips. He notices he is more tired and irritable in general these days. He is only in his 40s, and he tells himself this should be the prime of his life. His children are young, and all of his free time goes to his family. However, due to his preoccupation with his exhaustion and forgetfulness he finds it harder to sleep well at night, which means he starts his day with an energy deficit. This cycle gets more entrenched with each day.

Massage therapist Rebecca arrives late for her appointment and has a hard time settling down on the treatment table, because her mind keeps racing to the next thing she has on her to-do list. Her daily schedule is crowded and set up to meet everyone else’s needs before her own.

She feels like she’s on the run, physically and mentally, even when she knows it is her time to relax. As a massage therapist herself, she knows she should put her own self-care first—after all, this is what she tells her clients—but her habit of over-caring for everyone else is hard to break. The stress of it all is starting to affect her life at all levels, and her ability to receive care from another person is also limited by her scatteredness.

These massage therapists are among the many Americans who are gambling with their health, by allowing their minds and bodies to become super-stressed.

This is How to Relax

The good news is medical research on brain health now shows a variety of stress-relieving techniques, including massage, meditation and relaxing movement such as yoga, can dramatically reduce the negative effects of the daily grind on your body and brain, which then reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

On top of that, the physical response to nurturing touch such as massage has been shown to go beyond relaxing muscles, to include lowering blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol, while raising levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. These are just a few of the many benefits being found in new research, which can have a long-term impact on whether you are headed for stress-implicated diseases such as Alzheimer’s or crippling panic attacks, exhaustion and fogginess in your thinking.

Massage therapists can, and should, utilize this information in our practices and our own self-care. To do so, consider these three important steps:

Step 1. Know thyself. This means, reflect on and learn from your own health first. This bit of wisdom given to us by the ancient Greeks still applies today.

Mentally complete a thorough inner inventory of anything that interferes with your ability to clearly know yourself, with all your gifts, talents and warts. This might include discovering a belief that everyone else’s needs come first or your self-worth is based on how well you take care of other people. Uncovering, understanding and releasing these kinds of limiting beliefs helps you make healthier self-care choices when it comes to scheduling your life. Once any negative beliefs are unearthed, they can be seen for what they are—a serious impediment to your expression as a unique, vibrant, wonderful human being. You can acknowledge you deserve to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those in need around you. This is not optional. People who lack the capacity to say “no” when they need to pay the price with their health.

Professionally, people who have healthy boundaries have much longer, more successful careers, and avoid the burnout that is so prevalent in the healing arts and in massage in particular. None of us are in control of what happens in all corners of our lives, but if we start out with a schedule that includes the self-care we need, then when life gets messy and complicated with surprises we were not wanting nor expecting, we have that basic level of self-care in place to keep our foundational well-being intact.

Step 2. Do your own healing work. Nothing grows your compassion and capacity to hold space for another person like engaging in your own healing process. When we release and heal the tight, painful or disconnected parts of ourselves it gives us the energy to refill our empathy reservoirs, allowing compassion to naturally flow—first to ourselves, then to those in our practice and personal lives.

From deep transformational bodywork such as advanced CranioSacral Therapy to simply keeping a daily journal, healing can be accomplished in numerous ways. Even the simplest daily practices have been shown to reduce pain and bring inner issues to resolution.

There are somatic psychology techniques, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, that can be helpful. A regular movement practice such as nidra or hatha yoga can be of assistance.

My Healing From the Core curriculum is another route that was originally designed for therapists, to facilitate inner healing through self-reflection and exploration, hands-on work and movement. The paths to healing are many in today’s world. Use one that fits what you need and be consistent and diligent on behalf of your own healing process.

Learn to orient from within your own core, rather than constantly checking out how everyone else is doing around you. This important habit is much easier to attain and maintain when your own healing is well underway. So I encourage you to choose a path to healing and follow it, because the rewards are priceless.

3. Listen to your body’s wisdom. Your body knows if your surroundings and life choices match up with your core inner needs. We operate optimally—thriving with full energy reservoirs—when we listen to our deep inner knowing.

So, having put yourself on your own to-do list, and moving through your own healing process, the next step is to use this wisdom to check out the other areas that need your self-care.

Are you eating in a healthy way for your unique body, age and medical needs? Have you reduced sugar, processed and fast foods that contain ingredients that can harm you? Are you choosing fresh, organic, live food regularly? Each of us learns through our inner listening process. If you eat a meal that truly nourishes your system, you will have more energy afterward. If you eat something that is not in that category, you will feel de-energized. The same goes for your relationship with caffeine and alcohol.

Listening to your body moment by moment is required. Personally, I am finding my dietary choices shifting slowly and effortlessly as I listen more deeply to my body’s wisdom each day. Exercise is also key. We live at a time when we have all manner of healthy movement systems available to us. What works best for you on a regular basis?

Try different things until you find the best one for you at this point in your life. It could change as you age, but most important is that you have some kind of healthy movement every day that nourishes and helps your body detoxify. I am writing this article while cycling on a recumbent bicycle. Other days, I walk, swim or dance.

Relationships also need care and nurturing. Ask yourself if you are nourished by your connections with family and friends. Choose to be in communities and places that nurture who you are as a person. If you have relationships that leave you depleted or anxious, think about changing the nature of that relationship, or limiting the time or energy you invest there.

Model what you Teach

All three steps affect your health, energy levels and happiness, which in turn affect your ability to be fully present as a massage therapist. We need to model what we are teaching people to do for their own health—and what is good for your clients is every bit as important for you as a massage therapist.

Finally, make regular massage part of your self-care regimen and benefit from the same wonderful effects your clients receive from you. I get some form of bodywork every week.

You and I care for and touch many people. I value what I do enough to keep my own energy reservoir full. We know now that it also helps us maintain our health and well-being. Make yourself a priority today and take the steps that will keep you healthy.

About the author

Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, CMT, CST-D, is the author of “Reclaiming Your Body: Healing From Trauma and Awakening to Your Body’s Wisdom” and “Full Body Presence.” Her Healing from the Core curriculum combined with CranioSacral Therapy and other bodywork modalities creates a complete, body-centered guide to awareness, healing and joy. Scurlock-Durana is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine. She teaches around the world and lives in Reston, Virginia.