Self-Care: Listening to Your Body


As a massage therapist, you understand the demands you place on your body every day and how important really paying attention to self-care is in terms of preventing injuries for longevity in the massage therapy profession.

Still, so often when we think of taking care of ourselves physically, we think of eating right, for example, or exercising on a regular basis. All of which is important, to be sure.

But that’s not the entire story.

Nutrition and exercise, among other things, are certainly important. And, for the most part, are things you can control. But it’s also true that your body gives you a lot of information about how you need to take care of yourself—if you take the time and know how to listen.

What does that mean exactly? Read on and find out how listening to cues from your body can be an important aspect of your total self-care program.

Sensory Awareness

There isn’t one specific theory surrounding body awareness, perhaps because it’s not measurable in the same way as, say, blood pressure. Some budding research, however, is beginning to more scientifically explore the mind-body connection, as well as the role body awareness plays in emotional well-being.

Cynthia Price, professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been involved in developing measures to better study body awareness, which are now being used in mind-body intervention research. Her own preliminary research findings suggest that body awareness is related to emotion regulation and improved mental health outcomes among women recovering from trauma and/or chemical dependency.

“Interoception is awareness and processing of sensations in the internal body,” she explains. “Body awareness and interoception can be used synonymously, and both involve attention to bodily experience.” In other words, being present and better understanding what you’re feeling can give you good insight into where you need to pay more attention, giving you great information on how to best take care of yourself.

Getting In Touch

Being more aware of your internal sensory experiences makes noticing the cues your body is sending to signal when you’re uncomfortable, tired or stressed easier to recognize. And being able to more easily recognize how you’re feeling can be key in remaining healthy, especially when considering your emotional well-being.

“Attention to sensory cues also facilitates greater connection to versus avoidance from the body,” says Price. “When we are embodied, the feeling of being/living in our bodies, we can more easily emotionally regulate and take better care of ourselves.”

And being at the front end of things like stress and fatigue can go a long way in reducing how these issues affect you and your practice. But how exactly do you practice presence?

How You Practice Presence

Some massage therapists might already be acquainted with the idea of presence, as they may have been taught during school to take a few minutes before working on a client to center themselves by closing their eyes and taking a few deep breaths, for example.

“Paying attention to internal body sensations in the present moment is fundamental,” Price explains. “Present moment awareness is also referred to as mindfulness. Being mindful of our bodily experience involves the ability to turn our attention internally and to observe or take note of bodily state and sensations.”

The question still remains, though, of exactly how you become more present and aware. Paying attention sounds fairly simple, but remaining in the moment and developing true body awareness takes practice.

Price, in a 2006 article she co-wrote with Jack Blackburn called “Implications of Presence in Manual Therapy” that appeared in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, outlines a couple of ways massage therapists can start developing body awareness.

Weighing. Based on work first done by Milton Trager, weighing is the idea of monitoring the effects of weight. You can look at this idea from a more philosophical standpoint, for example, by asking yourself as various thoughts enter your mind: How much does this thought or feeling weigh? Additionally, as you work with a client, you can focus your attention on how your client’s tissue is responding to your weight as you work. Think about how the tissue is changing with the different techniques you use, for example.

The point of these exercises is twofold: by giving weight to your thoughts, you can more easily parse out
what is bothering you, for example, or what might be causing you stress. Additionally, considering how you you are working, as well as how your work is affecting your client’s body.

Measuring effort. You can also stay present and develop body awareness by being conscious of the amount of effort you’re expending during a massage session. Interestingly, what often happens is that massage therapists begin to fi nd that they can get the results they want without expending as much effort, creating less strain on their own body in the process.

For example, ask yourself during the session: “Can I do less than I’m doing right now while still being effective?” Then, back off the pressure you’re using until your hands feel more comfortable and see if you can still get the same results. In doing so, you’ll become better acquainted with the amount of pressure you need to exert to affect change, which can help you ease the pressure you’re putting on your own body.

Body Awareness as Self-Care

Being present and developing body awareness probably isn’t going to happen overnight. With practice, however, you’ll find that being in the moment and paying attention to sensory cues is natural—and may become an important aspect of your self-care.

“Paying attention to inner body sensations as a way to discern how you are feeling emotionally, and then taking the time to attend to and process the emotions, is one way body awareness translates to self-care,” Price explains. And the same goes for stress. “When you’re stressed, take time and attend to the body by using breath and attention to sensation,” she adds.

Price is quick to say, too, that self-care is a very individual endeavor. Still, especially in a profession like massage therapy that demands a great deal of practitioners both physically and emotionally, being able to tune into how you are doing and how you are feeling can help you more effectively deal with any problems that might affect your health and well-being.

And that is what self-care is all about.

Learning to Listen: Though it sounds simple, quieting your mind and really staying present takes some practice—and patience. Today, however, there are myriad resources aimed at helping you take that first step.

Tm.org. This website is dedicated to transcendental meditation, and is full of information both about the benefits of meditation and how to get started.

Mindful.org. Here, you'll find great information about mindfulness, including several articles ranging in topic from exercises about how to get started with meditation to setting up a mindfulness or meditation group in your area.

There are also a variety of phone apps available that can help you get started or keep you going when you're on the road or have a few minutes between sessions. Many are free or minimally priced and offer a variety of exercises, from complete guided meditations to simple timers for those who need less support.


Additional Resources

Learn how to care for your hands, wrists and forearms when you take Healthy Hands: How to Properly Take Care of Forearms, Wrists and Hands. This continuing education course focuses on self-care for these areas so you can better resolve pain and stay in the profession you love for as long as you want.

Need help better understanding the symptoms and affects of burnout? Avoiding Burnout for Massage Therapists will help you better understand the signs of burnout and give you the tools you need to effectively address symptoms.

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