(And how massage can help you get there)
Through my work I've learned a lot about relaxation, the mind-body connection, and stress and the havoc it wreaks on our daily lives and health. I have worked with countless individuals whose chief complaints are stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed. I have seen the intensities of modern life manifesting themselves as physical ailments in my clients. It is so common. And even though we all know how dangerous chronic stress can be for our physical and mental health, it doesn't seem to be getting any better.
There are obviously many things we can do to combat this issue (some more affordable than others). A day at the spa or a great vacation are obviously tempting options. And while things like that are great in the moment, they hardly help with the root of the problem. Unfortunately (in a culture that almost demands an instant fix) getting to a place of peace can sometimes take a very long time. It usually requires a fair amount of effort, too.
One thing that has been proven to help is something called mindfulness. This is a practice that entails being in the present moment, ideally without judgement. To be mindful means to experience your senses, taking note of things you feel and smell and see. It means that you aren't preoccupied with the past or the future, that you're not obsessing over your to-do list. This can include things like meditation and yoga (although a lot of yoga practices in the western world lose this element by solely focusing on impressive poses). It's called a practice because that's literally what it is - you're not going to become good at this after one try. And you really want this mindset to become a habit if you want the best reward.
If you feel like you have trouble being "in the moment", you are definitely not alone. This is a conversation I've had with many clients and why I think massage can be a great tool to help you practice the art of letting go. Many people only consider massage when they're feeling sore and in need of some muscle work. Or when they're beyond stressed and just need that hour long break a couple times a year. Or maybe when Valentine's Day rolls around and they figure a couples massage might be romantic. But I urge you to consider what a great tool it could be in your mindfulness journey. I like to think of it like working out. If this is a part of your mind you don't exercise frequently it can be really hard to know where to begin. You may find yourself getting frustrated and overwhelmed and that totally defeats the purpose, and increases the chance that you won't try it again. You know the benefits of hiring a personal trainer to help you get started at the gym - this is the same thing. Finding a massage therapist who is passionate about this type of work can be a great first step in practicing mindfulness.
Throughout my career I have worked on many people who have a hard time letting go. And it seems to me that they fall into at least one (though usually more) of three categories. I'm going to describe them for you, and you can decide if any of these describe your current condition.
Type #1: The People Pleaser
When this person comes for a massage, they try to "help" the whole time instead of letting go and enjoying the experience. I'll tell people to let me do all the work, that they don't need to lift a finger during the whole service unless I instruct them to. And yet they will try assist me by tucking their own sheets in around themselves or holding their arms up for me to massage instead of just relaxing. They'll apologize and wonder out loud if they're in the right place on the table or if their arms are where they should be. They don't want to be a burden to me, and sometimes I wonder if they would try to massage themselves if that became an option. They may not voice their true opinions when presented with options for their treatment, instead saying things like "oh I don't care, whatever's easiest". You might be this type of person if you've ever felt the need to fold the sheets at the end of the massage to help your therapist out.
This "helping" does nothing good for anyone. It makes things harder for your therapist (they will literally move your body and limbs to the right spots, you don't have to worry about that) and it makes things less effective for you! And therefore a waste of your money, which is a waste of your energy.
It usually seems obvious to me that if a person presents this way during their massage, they probably embody this trait in the rest of their lives as well. This means putting the comfort (or perceived comfort) of those around them ahead of their own comfort. This might mean saying yes when they want to say no, spreading themselves too thin and burning out, martyring themselves and feeling resentful for it. That saying 'you can't pour from an empty cup' is for these people.
This type of person needs to unlearn the idea that to focus on themselves is selfish. Massage is a great and safe place to practice this because there are no repercussions to them letting go - no one is going to go hungry, or be offended, or miss soccer practice because they fully relaxed in their massage instead of laying there trying to make their therapist happy. And once they become practiced in letting go during a massage they can bring that experience into the rest of their lives.
Category #2: The Anxious Mind/Anxious Body
When this person comes in for a massage, I can feel their energy almost before I even meet them in the waiting room. They are neurologically firing on all cylinders. This comes across in nervous mannerisms, too-loud laughter, and a physical buzz I can feel when my hands hover above them. This is a person who has been in fight or flight mode for too long. They show classic signs of chronic stress (fatigue in the skin/hair/mind/body, irritability, constant colds and sniffles, trouble sleeping, weight gain, etc). These people are students, or they have high-stress jobs, or bad relationships, or sick family members. They may be dealing with financial or legal issues. Sometimes these are things they dealt with years ago, but that feeling of being on edge never went away. The cortisol from that neurological response has been flooding their body ever since.
Beside the fact that massage has been proven to reduce cortisol levels in the body, it can also be a good practice of mindfulness which can help this type immeasurably. Turning off the mind and focusing on the present is a great way to slow down the nervous system. Over time, this practice can help get the nervous system under control. Finding a massage therapist that they trust and are comfortable with is crucial for this type. They may feel apprehensive at first because they're used to being on high alert, especially in new situations. This feeling is generally heightened with something as intimate as massage. So for this type I suggest reserving judgement until the massage is finished, and then deciding if that therapist/their energy was a good fit for them. Some of the people that fall into this category may need to be verbally reminded during their massage to focus on sensations they're feeling ("bring your attention the warmth of this oil", "feel your neck muscles relaxing under my fingers", "focus on your hand relaxing with this stretch"). The feelings of a mind-body connection brought on through massage is very helpful for these types. Intentionally acknowledging sensations in the body is a key player in a mindfulness practice.
This is the type that I find to more frequently have an emotional response to massage in comparison with the other types. Their stress has often become part of their body, and they hold it in knots and tension in various areas. Letting that area finally release fully can also lead to a release of tears or laughter. Sometimes really big emotions can come up in a massage. If you find yourself suddenly sobbing during a massage, or even hours later when you're sitting at home, know that it is totally normal and welcome it as part of the process of letting go.
Once this type becomes familiar with the sensation and methods of mindfulness during a massage, they can transfer those skills to everyday life. Instead of focusing on how the oil feels on their skin, they can make a conscious effort to note how the sun feels on their skin, or how beautiful the trees in their neighborhood are, or how great the meal their partner is cooking smells. All of these things will help ground them and their nervous system.
Category #3: The Overachiever
When this person comes in to get a massage I can tell that they want me to know that this isn't their first rodeo, even if it is. They don't want to appear inexperienced. They want to be in control of everything, at all times. A lot of them will be on their cell phone until they are practically forced to put it away. They'll say "so sorry, just one sec" while typing furiously, and that they're just expecting a work call/email. During our intake conversation they'll lament to me that they hardly ever have time to relax, that their life is just go-go-go, that they have a million things on their to-do list but that they know they should try to slow down. So they've booked a massage, pretending to themselves and aloud that this one massage every 5 months is going to do the trick.
These people also tend to be "helpers" during their massage. But they're doing it for a different reason than the people pleasers. They simply cannot relinquish control enough to fully relax. Another reason for this "helping" that a friend who falls into this category admitted to me is that she wants to appear to be "good at getting a massage".
We have all met these people out in the world and they really aren't hard to recognize. And it's obvious to most of us that these people often suffer from chronic stress rooted in the need to always be perfect and successful at the million things they sign themselves up for. They strive for perfection in their schooling and careers, as volunteers, as parents, even as children to their own parents. And while there is nothing wrong with having big goals and working toward them, this type sometimes gets lost in this striving. They eventually feel the need to be "on" all the time, and this habit can be very hard to break.
Massage can be great for this type because it forces them to slow down for at least a short period of time. They may need a massage therapist who is a bit more solid in their approach, who tells them "this is what we're doing today" and doesn't let the treatment become railroaded by questions and conversation during the massage (because this type often actively resists relaxation).
This type may be under the impression that their massage needs to be deep and painful and only focused on their trouble areas (usually their neck and shoulders). They may need to be talked into anything even resembling relaxation. They are in a hurry, their time is precious, and they don't want to waste it on something that isn't going to give them immediate results. I have had great success with a bit of sneaky compromise: I'll suggest that I work their upper body including their arms and hands. I'll do solid yet soothing work on their trouble areas, and then spend the rest of the time providing them with intentional relaxation massage. Once they realize that they've been tricked into actually letting go and relaxing, it's too late! They're hooked! Using this method I've even gotten these overachiever clients to agree to full body relaxation massages on an alternating basis.
If you identify with this type, perhaps try something a little different at your next massage. Tell your therapist that you need to slow down, and that you want to relax in addition to having your muscles worked on. (If you usually see someone at a sports massage clinic or chiropractic clinic you may need to venture elsewhere. As always, it's best to choose a therapist based on your goals. While those therapists are usually very skilled at assisting with injuries they may not enjoy/be practiced at more relaxing modalities.)
If any of this rang true for you I encourage you to seek out massage with the intention of being in the moment and feeling that deep sense of letting go. Talk to your massage therapist, keep those lines of communication open. Tell them what you struggle with. If you have a hard time turning your mind off, tell them. If you feel overwhelmed because you have too much on the go, tell them. Also mention that it is your goal to be present during your massage. If you want verbal reminders to bring your focus back to the present, let them know. If you love to chat during your massage, try remaining quiet. If you normally find yourself too shy to speak up if the pressure is too much, or you're feeling too hot (therefore forcing you to only focus on being uncomfortable and wishing the massage would hurry up and end) mention this to your therapist! They'll be able to check in with you more frequently to make sure you're doing alright.
And then once you've experienced the benefits of mindfulness, let that seep out into the rest of your life and practice it as often as you can.