Self Care for Massage Therapists

self care massage therapistsUs therapists are very good at reminding clients to stretch, take regular breaks and drink plenty of water. Yet, from experience, when I meet other therapists were are all guilty of not looking after ourselves enough.

“Cura te ipsum”, look after yourself, warned the Ancient Romans, recommending that physicians should care for and heal themselves first before tending to patients.

You have probably noticed it already that in airlines’ in-flight safety demonstrations the instructions are for adults to put their oxygen mask on first before they can put one on their children. It’s not the law of the jungle but simple common sense. So it’s a good idea to apply the same thinking in the workplace.

Self-care is not just about keeping healthy and prevent injuries but is also a good marketing tool. I will explain why.

Start observing people and how they react to you at different stages of health. Say you are having a bad day, you are tired and your back is killing you. Your smile is strained, your eyes are red and your conversation less than sparkling.

Then, see how your clients respond to you when you feel happy, energetic, you had a good night’s sleep and a massage the day before.

You will soon find out that a healthy massage therapist is a successful massage therapist.

First, let’s look at what we all can do to prevent repetitive strain injuries and exhaustion.

Therapists get worn out, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes we take on other people’s problems even on our days off, at parties, during our coffee breaks. I call this “emotional pollution”. Our thoughts and judgement become clouded as we listen to people complaining. This gives the brain a temporary impairment as we need to constantly switch from listening mode to problem solving mode. On top of it all, this type of emotional pollution has a bad carbon footprint. It lingers like a bad smell and it haunts us for days while our counterpart walks away feeling happy and carefree.

The solution? Boundaries and good time management. My trick is to tell people (friends, co-workers) that, if they “must” have a moan about life, I will only listen to them for five minutes and then we need to talk about another topic. Most people will feel frustrated and will try to steer the conversation back to their problems. Keep focused and firm in your intention. If all else fails, have a youtube  library of funny kittens videos as a distraction strategy. Find whatever works for you to stay in control of the situation. If a client wants to share some thoughts and feeling, listening without judgement for a few minutes and then gently remind them that they will enjoy the treatment better by creating a moment of stillness and focusing on their own body.

Some clients will translate their life’s frustrations and stressed into detailed instructions they give you during the treatment. It makes them feel they have some control back in their lives. Unfortunately their instructions may interfere with your own action plan for your client so to find a happy compromise acknowledge their requirements and explain to them how you will adjust your planned massage sequence to their needs. This alone will help your client relax as you are demonstrating your professionalism and active listening skills.

Most importantly, if you are not qualified in talking therapies (counselling, psychotherapy, psychology) then you are not allowed to give anyone advice. You are only allowed to listen and refer the client to a qualified professional.

Let’s now talk about physical exhaustion. The main reason for working too much is the anxiety of not having enough money, not wanting to turn clients away and sometimes subcontractor work at low pay so you need to put in the hours.

Our work is valuable so the best prevention against physical exhaustion is to raise your prices and limit your hours. When you become less available clients respect you more and you become more in demand.

Then, you “only” need to practice what you preach to clients.  The most common objection that fellow massage therapists give me when I ask them when was the last time they had a massage is that they are “too busy” and they keep postponing their massage appointments to take care of themselves.

Over the years, I have found out that the secret to a long and healthy career is to take responsibility for your health, just like we tend to suggest to our clients.

As you may expect, taking responsibility is a full time job and it is all about building habits that will last a lifetime.

Here’s a handy checklist:

1. Have a regular massage yourself. There’s no point in advising clients to have weekly massages if you can’t remember the last time you had a treatment. If you have cashflow problems agree to do regular exchanges with fellow massage students and later on with other qualified massage therapists. Remember that a spa break can be an affordable alternative as larger spas tend to have more introductory offers to entice new clients so you can treat yourself to not only a good massage but a longer relaxation experience at a fraction of the cost.

2. Drink water throughout the day and bring some snacks, possibly nuts or protein-rich food to keep you full (the sound of a rumbling stomach is not as soothing as spa music). Aim to eat plenty of leafy green vegetables as they are packed with minerals and vitamins. The wrong types of food (eg sugary foods, ready meals) tend to steal your energy so you won’t be as productive. Sugary foods may also interfere with your sleep, creating a vicious cycle of having to rely on endless cups of coffee during the day.

3. Stretch several times a day, ideally between each client; failing that, aim to stretch at least first thing in the morning and/or last thing at night. The key areas to stretch are forearms and pecs as we tend to crouch and shrink our shoulders. Also make sure you check your posture while you work: are your shoulders relaxed? Are you taking a wide stance with your knees slightly bent? Are you using your body weight for leverage?

4. Take a yoga or Pilates class to increase your flexibility and stamina. Elbow work requires strong traps, deltoids, lats and obliques. Become best friends with the “plank”. Actually I tend to do the occasional plank while doing pressure points on clients with my elbow – say you need to work on someone’s piriformis: use one elbow to apply pressure as you lean with your body sideways.  Talking about multitasking… work and workout all in one!

5. Do some cardiovascular exercise like running or swimming as it not only helps burn fat but will give you more energy throughout the day. If the thought of running gives you a sense of mild panic, try a dance class or martial arts. Exercising first thing in the morning tends to be more effective as it will make you feel energised during the day. Exercising in the evening may be too stimulating and may interfere with your sleep. Of course, we see clients in the evening anyway so that’s prime time for business.

6. Take a nap when you can. I know, I know. You feel guilty. I feel guilty too. But if you have clients  first thing in the morning, lunchtime and then you have a gap until the evening, a short nap (15-20 minutes) gives you a better energy boost than a cup of coffee. In my native Italy, people with a longer lunch break have a short nap so that they can go back to work refreshed. Shops and offices stay open late in Italy compared to other countries. As a massage therapist you are also open for business for long hours. Just like you need to recharge your phone when your battery goes flat, you need to recharge your energy levels for your clients.

7. Meditate. Take a few minutes each morning to focus on your breathing. There are so many free resources online where you can learn to meditate. I personally like Headspace  but fellow massage therapists have also recommended Meditation Timer  and the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre’s guided meditations.

I mentioned that self-care is a good marketing tool. I will expand more on this in another blog but in the meantime here’s some key points.

People judge you by the way you look. Don’t blame me, blame society, mass media and their conditioning, ok? What I mean here is that you need to look healthy. If you are sick, you are not meant to be working. You are meant to rest, look after yourself and go back to work when you feel better. Working while you are run down will make you worse and worse still you may spread a virus to your clients, colleagues and friends. Stay at home.

Sometimes clients will tell you you look tired. Don’t be defensive, just agree with them. You’re tired. You will have some sleep, get a massage, and be fresh as a daisy once again because you are taking responsibility for your health.

You will occasionally also be judged on your weight (and I have been judged so many times that I have stopped caring, but I do still care about my health). I am not saying that you need to become obsessed with your appearance, but if you have a qualification in nutrition as well as massage, clients will check that you practice what you preach. If you are huffing and puffing after climbing stairs it does not look good. It’s all about finding a happy medium so that you look healthy, energetic and exhude positivity. To be like this, you need to be a bit selfish and at times say no to people to avoid over-committing your time so that you can focus on your relaxation, exercise and good nutrition.

Taking care of yourself having regular treatments has the positive side-effect of widening your network of contacts so you are able to refer clients out to specialists and hopefully get a referral back. If you can’t afford to pay an osteopath, you could offer to do a swap or write a blog reviewing their services.

Go to networking events and make contact with fitness professionals. Find an activity that you like and plan it into your diary, get to know some key contacts in the field and establish a good working relationship with them. Once you have made some connections, make the most of social media to keep in touch with them and share useful information. The best way to build trust is to share information and keeping the lines of communications open. Communicating is also a great tool to keep stress at bay.

As you can see, it takes time, effort and dedication to stay healthy for yourself, your client, your business and your family. You are a precious commodity.

Image courtesy of Ambro/
  • Benjamin McDonald

    Brisk walk breaks are awesome too!