Have you ever rushed into a massage feeling stressed out, but then after a few minutes of working you felt calmer? There’s research that suggests a massage therapist’s anxiety is reduced when giving a massage.(1) This is not only a fortuitous work benefit, it’s also an opportunity to massage pain-free.
I’ll explain how a less-anxious mind can help you massage pain-free in a minute. But first, let’s look at the study that shows the anxiety-reducing effect for the person giving the massage.
Twenty-two final-term massage students between ages 18 and 65 years participated in the study. They were divided into two groups—the massage group and the control group. The massage group gave a one-hour Swedish massage. The control group did normal activities in a room for an hour.
Before and after the activities the two groups completed a Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS) questionnaire to compare pre- and post- stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Here’s what they found: Between the two groups there was no change with subjective depressive and subjective stress-related symptoms as well as the overall DASS score. But there was “a statistically significant advantage for the massage group” in the subjective anxiety category.(2)
It’s also noteworthy that the researchers selected massage students, not seasoned massage therapists. Think back when you were a massage student; what was going on in your mind when you were doing a massage? Probably something like this: How’s the pressure? Does the massage feel good? Should I try a different stroke?
In other words, there was a lot of nervous chatter, but yet, according to the study, massage students still reported less anxiety after doing a massage. That seems like one powerful anxiety-reducing effect, and that’s how I had experienced it about 20 years into my massage career.
Eliminate Your Pain When Massaging
At the time, my body was falling apart, and I was on the brink of quitting massage. Needless to say, there was a lot of chatter in my head when I was doing a massage.
But to do a good massage meant my hands couldn’t move as fast as my thoughts. In fact, the relaxing pace of my strokes seemed to force my brain to slow down. As the study suggests, my anxiety went down as I massaged. In this calmer state, I began to observe not only what was under my hands but also what was happening with my body as I worked.
I noticed a spot in my upper back would burn when I reached too far while applying firm pressure. Conversely, I noticed I didn’t feel any burning in that spot when I was directly over the area I was working.
I also became aware that my neck hurt when I did deep pressure because I was using my arms and shoulders to generate most of the force. So, I started to experiment with leaning, leveraging my body weight onto the client to generate force.
As I got better at leaning, doing deep work got easier and my neck no longer hurt. After enough repetitions, leaning went on automatic pilot, allowing me to shift my focus to other areas of my body that were struggling, like my hands.
My hands were persistently tight and achy. One observation I made in the massage room was when I was working with only one hand, the non-working hand would also tense up. This was an easy fix. I simply checked in with my hands. Then I consciously relaxed the non-working hand and made sure my working hand wasn’t overworking.
But that’s me. What about you? How might a less anxious mind in the massage room be harnessed to help you massage pain-free?
Let’s go through an example. It has been a rough day. Fido got out and it took you all morning to find him. Then the garage called and told you your car needs $2000 in repairs to pass inspection. You go to work with an achy shoulder from too many deep pressure clients the week before. Let’s just say you have a lot of anxiety when you lay your hands on Dhoti, your first client of the afternoon.
As you work your opening strokes down Dhoti’s back, your strokes are fast, but you flip over a tight spot and instantly your hands slow down as you examine the area. After you get done examining the tight spot your hands continue the glide down Dhoti’s back, but now at a much slower pace than when you started.
Dhoti sighs. You can tell she is relaxing. The slower pace is relaxing you, too. Up by her right trap you find another tight area that Dhoti loves to get worked with firm pressure. You apply firm pressure, but your angry levator scapulae area objects and rightly so because you’re tensing your upper-body to generate force. You reposition yourself so you can lean into Dhoti’s upper-trap. As you lean into Dhoti’s muscles using your body weight to generate force, you notice your levator scapulae doesn’t hurt.
By the way, how does the rest of your body feel? You check in. Your legs, torso and neck feel great because you’re leaning to generate force. But your hands are another story. Right now you’re using your knuckles and fists. But your fist hand is balled tight and starting to hurt. You adjust and make a loose fit like in the photo here.
In Dhoti’s lumbar back you find an area you think could benefit from static pressure, but you know it will be too hard on your thumb. So you pick up a T-bar to press. As you apply more pressure, you feel your hand tighten around the handle.
There’s a stark contrast between the hand you are now tightening and the rest of your body which is relaxed. So, instead of continuing to tighten your hand around the handle, you place your other hand, the non-holding hand, next to the T-bar to support it. Now you can loosen your grip because the massage tool is stabilized between both hands.
You continue the massage in this calm state of mind, monitoring your body mechanics and making adjustments as you go along.
Take Care of You
There’s one more important thing I need to tell you: Making self-care a high-priority item is hard. Really hard. Why? Because we’re trained to put clients first. And when we feel pain in the massage room, we just think it’s part of the job. It’s not.
You have an opportunity to change your pain in the massage room. The opportunity arises naturally: As you massage, your anxiety decreases. As your anxiety decreases, your mind calms.
In that calm state lies the opportunity to observe what’s going on with your body.
Note your pain areas and then make adjustments to your body mechanics to resolve the pain. For example, to feel less upper-body strain, lean and stay relaxed.
If you continue to feel guilty for looking out for yourself in the massage room, call me or anyone else who almost quit massage because of a beat-up body, and we’ll tell you: You can’t take care of them if you can’t take care of you.
1. Jensen AM, Ramasamy A, Hotek J, Roel B, Riffe D. The benefits of giving a massage on the mental state of massage therapists: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal Alternative Complementary Medicine 2012 Dec;18(12):1142-6.
About the Author
Mark Liskey is a massage therapist, massage CE provider and author of “The Pain-Free Massage Therapist,” a body-mechanics strategies and techniques book for eliminating pain in the massage room and extending massage careers. You can access free, instructional body-mechanics videos at painfreemassagetherapist.com. Read his article, “Stacked Vs. Unstacked Joints: The Body Mechanics Study that Matters.”