As massage therapists, the amount of physical and emotional energy that we put out can be very demanding at times. We know we need to take the time to fuel the energy we so easily give away. Like many of you, it's a balance I've struggled to find in my 21 years as a massage therapist ... but I'm getting better.
Recently I had the opportunity to go hiking in New York State's Shawangunk Mountains, which is home to acres of a delicate ecosystem that includes wildlife, plants, waterfalls and lots of beautiful rocks. I have spent my whole life living and working in New York City, and the only rocks I am familiar with are the ones in Central Park. For a long time I thought they actually qualified as mountains, or at the very least, hills.
As my friend Anna urged me on as we hiked the Shawangunks, I was filled with both fear and excitement, a feeling I hadn't felt since childhood. After our adventure, we found a tranquil spot to have lunch. We sat by a lake that had lily pods, fish, and our choice of butterflies and dragonflies.
Anna is a massage therapist and uses many modalities in her work, but she also has a wonderful gift of being able to facilitate her client's awareness of what's happening in their bodies. We started to talk about how the day's hike had caused a change in my body. When we first began, I brought to the table my typical work-hard, play-hard attitude, and now just hours later, I felt a softness in my body and a focused alertness within my mind. What I discovered was that I had been truly in the moment when I was hiking and climbing. I didn't have time to think about anything else except where my next step or handgrip was going.
On the bus ride home, I had my CD player, books and knitting ready to keep me occupied, but all I could do was nap. My mind, body and spirit had been fed and now wanted to rest. I didn't realize how starved for care I was, and decided that I would need to learn to take time out for myself---and not just to sit and watch TV or go to the movies---but time out to nurture and feed my soul.
I began to think about massage therapists who have been practicing as long as me or even longer. What did they do to fuel their energy? How did they nurture their bodies, minds and spirits? To help those of you wondering the same thing, I interviewed a talented group of therapists---some with as much as 20-plus years of experience---to get their secrets for how they have sustained themselves and their practices. Here's what they had to say.
Keeping stress levels in check can be easier said than done. The American Academy of Physicians recommends that if you're already too busy, don't over-commit yourself to still more things. In other words, set limits.
This is something Carole Osborne-Sheets has learned to do, but it wasn't always easy. A somatic practitioner since 1974, she is especially experienced in family issues, including childbearing, nurturing, self-image and abuse. "Because many of my clients are dealing with intense, often traumatic experiences, I've sometimes felt overwhelmed or anxious about their healing process when I allow myself to feel egotistically over-responsible for the outcome of the work we do together," Osborne-Sheets says. "The death of a client or a client's baby has been heart-wrenching for me. I have had times when I was trying to juggle mothering, my practice, writing and teaching. Having so many balls in the air sometimes was very difficult."
But with such experiences also came maturation. "I've learned that I'm not responsible for either the health or disease of my clients," she says. "I know this to be intrinsically true so I have less stress related to my session work." Now Osborne-Sheets makes lists to prioritize tasks and responsibilities. She's also learned the times of day she works best at specific activities and also delegates when she can.
Armand Ayaltin, a doctor of natural medicine specializing in herbal medicine and a systemic deep tissue therapy practitioner based in Vancouver, has been practicing for 30 years. And while it's rewarding work, it also can take its toll. "Dealing with people and their diseases, whether structural or internal, is always a stressful job, particularly as we're trying to find the contributory, underlying causes to their symptoms," he says. "We are not just applying a formula [therapy] to everybody and hoping it'll work."
Getting a regular massage is one of the easiest things you can do to keep your stress levels in check. Sometimes massage therapists are the last ones to take advantage of the stress-reducing power of massage, but be sure to schedule a regular appointment for yourself. You also might try getting a handle on what triggers your stress by keeping a stress journal. This allows you to keep track of situations that caused a negative physical, mental or emotional response. Where were you? Who was involved? Was it a particular client that stressed you out? What seemed to cause the stress?
Also, describe your reaction. How did you feel? What did you say or do? The MayoClinic.com suggests using a scale---1 (not very intense) to 5 (very intense)---to rate the intensity of your stress. Keeping track of your stress levels will also help alert you to when you need to seek outside support.
Susan C. Berenson, RN, who has been practicing nursing for 28 years, has performed all the important duties that a nurse does on a hospital floor, and has provided supportive counseling to patients, families and other nurses around the complex issues of cancer.
She also practices reflexology on various clients, including parents of pediatric cancer patients. Berenson says the most stressful part of her work is the high distress so many of her patients are in. She knows she can't do it without confiding in others, so she facilitates a support group for other massage therapists who work in hospital-based practices.
"I take a look at myself and see what is getting triggered off in me … If you can't tolerate the problem, take a break and talk to someone," she says. To cope with the extreme stressors, Berenson has developed a support system for herself. "I have had a very supportive, ongoing relationship with one of my colleagues wherein we provide professional supervision to each other. We meet fairly regularly to discuss challenging clients, any personal responses or interference that develops during work, and other practice related issues."
Communing with others can have a positive effect on your life, too. There are many studies that show those who feel lonely and depressed are much more likely to get sick and prematurely die than their connected counterparts. Why? We're much more likely to do self-destructive things when we're lonely. Instead, make a connection and reach out. Invite a friend to dinner. Join a community group. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a senior center where you can make a meal, or share one with the residents there.
See the Positive
When faced with a challenging situation, do you immediately think it's too difficult for you to handle? Or do you see it as a chance to learn something new? If you see it as too difficult, you might need a healthy dose of optimism. In fact, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research reports that these personality traits---optimism and pessimism---can affect how well and how long you live. The right attitude can go a long way.
"The important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as stress," says Ayaltin. "It's a human reaction to a given situation, which makes it either stressful or easy sailing; we're the authors of our own stress. We need to develop the correct attitudes."
For Michele Schuman, a nationally certified therapist in New York State who works in a hospital setting, it also means remembering the patients there are more than their illness. "I am working with a person who has an illness, rather than working with an ill person. This is a critical distinction," she says. "Becoming a massage therapist has given me the opportunity to relate with a diversity of people in a direct and caring manner…This does not happen in every profession. My outlook has changed in my understanding of individual resiliency. I've seen people recover from very difficult situations and go on with their lives. I've been privileged to witness great courage and grace."
Ayaltin has seen burnout in colleagues and even in his students who quit the profession right after graduation and before they even have a chance to start practicing. He suggests embracing the profession you have chosen and sticking with it. "We are of invaluable service to humanity. We should be proud of our place within the health care system, and cultivate the highest standards of learning and practice," he says.
Take Care of Yourself
Leonor A. Horden, LMT, has been practicing for 23 years. She's learned the importance that taking care of herself has on her business. "Massage shines as a wonderful restorative and preventative measure, but not if we're chewing our client's ear off with our own pursuits and worries," she says.
You may not be able to control how a client treats you or problems you face with your employer, but you can control how well you take care of yourself. For Horden, that means finding ways to quiet the mind and to feel the purpose of her hands' work.
She meditates, regularly exercises and gets a massage every two to three weeks. She also eats organic when she can, drinks lots of water and tries to get a good night's rest, all of which go a long way to keeping her at her best so she can focus on her clients. She's onto something: When an overwhelming situation strikes, it's easy to fall into bad habits, habits that can actually leave you feeling worse.
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), when our moods change, so do our body chemicals. And feeling stressed can lead you to crave carbohydrates because they boost serotonin, which has a calming effect. Instead of reaching for simple carbs, like candy and sugar-opt for complex carbohydrates like whole-grain breads or vegetables to boost the nutrition content.
Scheduling time for exercise will also keep you balanced and ready to deal with stress. According to the American Heart Association, daily physical activity releases tension, helps you sleep better, improves self-image and counters anxiety and depression, while increasing your optimism.
Some good bets for exercise? Movement that involves a spiritual component, such as yoga, tai chi or qigong. Or anything that you can do for your entire life, such as walking and swimming.
When Byron Eddy, LMT, hit the 16-year mark of his massage career, the demands of the job began to take their toll. He was feeling burnt out. By chance he took a class at a retreat center near Boston with Josef Dellagrotte, a student of Moshe Feldenkrais. "That one weekend changed everything for me as I learned awareness of movement is the key to everything and that doing less can be more beneficial. Somatic movement education has added years to my career by giving me ways to stay injury-free," he explains. Seven years later, Eddy is still happily practicing massage---and staying healthy doing it.
Stephen Yates has been self-employed in a sports medicine/orthopedics clinic for 22 years, and practicing massage for 30. While life-long learning is important to your overall career, he advises newcomers to the field not to learn too much too fast. "Master Swedish massage first. Can you get the therapeutic results with it? After that, study a modality that you really are drawn to in depth before you go on to another," he says. "Don't spread yourself too thin with a bunch of half-learned modalities That will stress and frustrate you. If you have a long career there will be plenty of time to learn things. Have patience and smell the roses."
This is exactly what I'm planning to do. I'm taking this advice and planning another trip to visit Anna. She is promising new terrain and swimming in a lake. Now, I feel relaxed about the idea and am feeling excited about it. I will be taking care of myself and giving myself the space and time to heal, recharge and connect to something bigger than all of us---something we all need to remember to do.