Getting a massage is one of my favorite things in life — I love the feeling of the tension in my muscles being worked out by a professional’s hands, the eucalyptus-scented oils, even the new-agey music that’s inevitably playing over the speakers during the treatment. The whole ritual of getting a massage feels special, and nothing beats the feeling of utter relaxation during and after a treatment.
But up until recently, massages were a rare treat I reserved for a couple of times a year, usually on my birthday or Mother’s Day. When you consider that most treatments at a nice spa cost upward of a hundred dollars it’s no wonder that the price tag makes it prohibitive for most people, myself included, to get them on a regular basis.
Still, I was convinced that the power of touch had a profound effect on my overall health. After reflecting on how much benefit I get out of having my muscles kneaded I decided that regular rubdowns were actually a part of my own brand of preventative self-care.
“A self-care routine is supremely important because no one else can actually take care of us, as much as we'd like that,” Amanda Stemen, LCSW, a therapist in Los Angeles who uses mindfulness, movement, the outdoors, and creativity to improve mental health.
“Self-care can include anything and everything that heals and rejuvenates us from exercise, being outdoors, creative activities, reading, watching a good TV show or movie, spending time with loved ones, going to the spa and getting massages. It’s important that we engage in some of these activities every day. Of course, it would be difficult to engage in every activity, every day and certain activities tend to be more treats and occur less often than others, either due to cost, access or the time they take, such as going to the spa and getting a massage.”
Even though cost was a roadblock, I was determined to find a way to make massage a regular occurrence in my life. To be sure, I’m not saying that getting a massage can fend off illness, or that getting a spa treatment should take the place of medical care. But I believe that it’s no coincidence that because I do things on a regular basis to take good care of myself I’ve managed to thus far avoid getting rundown, depressed or anxious, and despite my fairly stressful life, which includes working and raising twins (one of which has special needs), I sleep well at night and rarely experience that “3 o’clock slump” that sends many people in search of a caffeine rush.
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The healing power of human touch — and tuning into your body
When a new spa, Tranquility Den, opened up right next to my gym this year, at first, I didn’t think much of it, since even if it was fantastic, it would probably be a place I would only go once or twice a year. But perusing their menu of services, I saw that they offered a 15-minute chair massage. Now that was definitely more doable on the regular! So, on a Friday afternoon, when both my kids were in school and I had just finished a big writing assignment, I booked a quickie treatment.
It occurred to me that in a way, the work being done [at the spa] was just as important as the time I put in next door at the gym.
I had experienced chair massages before, mainly at nail salons, and even though they aren’t as luxurious as those wonderful 60-minute massages, it still felt like a treat. Even though part of the ritual was missing with this shortened service — I kept my clothes on, so no plush robe or slippers to change into — I relaxed into the body work and breathed through the part when the therapist worked around my shoulder blades, a big place where I hold tension. It occurred to me that in a way, the work being done here was just as important as the time I put in next door at the gym.
Another great thing about taking the time for a massage is that it’s dedicated time where you’re forced to disconnect from your phone and the world around you. Amazingly, it is possible to do most leisure activities while still checking your email and social media. But during a massage, you need to turn off those devices — and that part of your brain.
I’m fortunate that I have a great spouse who will rub my feet or shoulders when I ask him, but for many people touch is something they may be missing. Human contact, even if it’s from a therapist you’ve never met before, can have huge benefits like calming anxiety, boosting serotonin levels and just feeling really good!
“The healing power of touch can't be disputed,” said Stemen. “It relaxes you and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression by decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol, lowering blood pressure, and increasing your white blood cell count, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin levels. The increase of feel-good hormones also increases our sense of connection to others, even when the person touching us is a professional massage therapist we've never met before, which is necessary for our well-being. All of this can also lead to improved sleep, which increases clarity and problem-solving skills amongst other cognitive and emotional benefits.”