7 Self-Care Strategies for Massage Therapists

Like other health care providers, massage therapists are often guilty of burning the candle at both ends. 

By Donna Shryer, May 23, 2017

In an article by Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the author expressed a need to increase the health care community’s awareness of self-care’s importance. As self-care decreases, Dr. Kirch explains, issues relating to burnout, stress, depression and generally poor emotional health incrementally increase.

As Dr. Kirch puts it, “If we are to provide the best possible care for our patients and support for our communities, we must begin to take better care of ourselves and each other.”1

One for All and All for One

Like other health care providers, massage therapists are often guilty of burning the candle at both ends. Between packed schedules, caring for clients and an overzealous desire to build a stronger career, sometimes even the smallest reprieve is mistaken as slacking off. In fact, Jim Binion, a massage therapist based in Winona, Minnesota, says it’s the opposite.

“Ignore any part of your self-care, and there’s a domino effect,” he explains. “Poor nutrition leads to stress, which leads to poor sleep, which leads to exhaustion and eventually career burnout.” Fortunately, Binion adds, the domino effect can work in reverse. “Our body is always regenerating cells. Take care of your mind and body today, and in seven years you might feel 10 years younger instead of seven years older.”

Registered nurse and Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based massage therapist Charlene Crumley agrees. “Self-care is cumulative; it’s a lifestyle that builds lifelong health.”

What also has cumulative powers? Stress! Massage therapists know how chronic stress affects health conditions and diseases. Now a recent study suggests a link between long-term stress and pessimism. Since this is the first study of its kind to link perceived stress and a gloomy outlook, further research is necessary. However, if the connection proves true, this could be a powerful career-buster. Imagine saying, “That kink in your back is a bummer, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”2

Nutrition Feedback

When it comes to self-care, nutrition earns a top spot, since it’s generally agreed that good nutrition, which includes hydration, has a powerful trickledown effect. “Nutrition fuels our bodies,” Binion says. “It helps our immune system, muscles, digestive system, sleep, stress levels, hormone production—all things related to the physiology that cumulatively create a healthy life and successful career.”

To give herself ample time for healthy energyboosting nutrition and hydration, Eliane Baggenstos, RN, massage therapist and owner of Bodono in New York, recommends six smaller, healthy meals on days when you are working at the table. “I space clients 30 minutes apart to give myself time to refuel,” she says.

Specific to hydration, a 2016 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined the dietary habits of more than 18,300 U.S. adults and found that the majority of people who increased their consumption of plain water by 1 percent reduced their total daily calorie intake as well as their consumption of saturated fat, sugar, sodium and cholesterol.3

Jacqueline C. Herbach, massage therapist, LMSW, and registered yoga therapist at SoftBelly NY, New York, cautions that healthy nutrition and hydration practices are best gauged by looking at the big picture. “You can’t stress over an occasional piece of chocolate or glass of wine. If you do, you’re doomed to see yourself as a nutritional failure. You want to review your nutrition over a full week. If every morning you’re downing five cups of coffee on an empty stomach with four massages scheduled, you need to rethink your nutritional plan.”

More Than Beauty Sleep

Studies tell us that adequate rest results in a wealth of benefits, with enhanced cognitive function, a clearer mind and a better mood topping the list.

What’s more, a new meta-analysis4 finds that even missing a few hours of sleep per night links to poor nutrition choices, which will likely affect the next night’s sleep. So you’re looking at a vicious and draining cycle.

To ensure you’re able to fall asleep when your body needs it, Baggenstos recommends selecting a time to end your day and sticking to it. “Figure out when you need to take your last appointment so that every evening you have time to unwind, be with your family, eat a good dinner, do something for yourself—whatever you need to climb into bed without stress at the best time for you.”

On the subject of sleep, never underestimate the refreshing value of a nap. Juana Ayers, massage therapist and co-owner of A Healing Journey Therapeutic Massage in Flagstaff, Arizona, schedules an hour and a half for lunch. “That gives me time to refuel, return phone calls and take a mini-power nap. I may not fall into a deep sleep, but I do wake up refreshed and prepared to give my afternoon clients the same great quality massage as my morning clients.”

A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that a 60-minute midday snooze gave nappers greater tolerance for frustration than those who watched an hour-long nature documentary.5 Drawing a parallel to career longevity, clients who see you as consistently effective are less likely to change therapists—since you are delivering great service no matter when that client needs an appointment.

Bound and Determined

Setting boundaries with clients can be tricky, especially when the massage therapist’s natural inclination is to be a caregiver. However, Ayers finds rules an essential part of long-term career success.

“Setting boundaries maintains professionalism. When a client understands that my time is valuable, then if they arrive 30 minutes late for a 60-minute massage, they know—and respect—the fact that they get a half hour with me and I charge for a full 60 minutes.”

Strength in Numbers

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America survey: “Emotional support is an important protective factor for dealing with life’s difficulties. The 2015 survey found the average stress level for those with emotional support was 5.0 out of 10, compared to 6.3 for those without such support.”

In addition, the survey adds, there are “ways to seek out such support, and to nurture your supportive relationships.”

Danielle Simbeck, massage therapist and owner of Olympia Bodyworks in Tumwater, Washington, finds massage therapy lonely at times—quietly working one-on-one with clients rather than trading ideas with a robust group discussion. Solving the problem, Simbeck offers suggestions to find a support network.

  • Join a class or social group of like-minded professionals, such as yoga instructors, acupuncturists, nutritionists or any professionals devoted to integrative care. “This helps me see issues from a slightly different perspective, so I’m always learning,” Simbeck says.
  • Consider support networks outside of massage therapy. For Simbeck, that means dancing. “I’m a dance teacher in my free time. It’s a whole other world,” she says. Her fellow hoofers may not talk about massage therapy, but in fact, Simbeck finds that to be relaxing, refreshing and revitalizing.
  • Remember the power of community in the profession. AMTA chapter programs and national events can be a great opportunity to connect with other massage therapists.

The Big Picture

“Nutrition, sleep, stress—we often think of these things as physical, but they also translate into our emotional and mental health well-being,” Simbeck says. “It’s how we build our resiliency, maintain a sense of emotional buoyancy and stay mentally focused—not just today, but long into our careers.”

Self-care shouldn’t be difficult, Simbeck concludes. “To make sure you’re always ready to go another day, it comes down to giving yourself the same advice and attention you give your clients!”

How to Say No

Sometimes it’s tough to tell clients “no.”

“For those of us who enjoy being helpful—or just plain polite—this is no easy task. Every ‘no’ is a missed opportunity to make a difference and build a relationship. And if itcomes across the wrong way to the wrong person, it’s also a surefire way to brand yourself as selfish and rude,” says Adam Grant, Wharton professor, author of Originals and Give and Take, and a writer for The New York Times.

To gracefully get around this inevitable problem, Professor Grant offers several ways to say no without hurting your image, your brand or your client’s feelings. With a little tweaking, here’s how the professor’s tactics look from a massage therapist’s perspective.

1. The Deferral

A loyal client asks you to “slip-in” one more session after normal hours. Instead of saying “no,” try, “What does tomorrow look like for you? I have several openings.” You never said “no” and you clearly made the client top priority.

2. The Referral

Let’s say a client turns massage sessions into marriage counseling—which is expertise you don’t have. Referring to past appeals for advice, Professor Grant says, “Many requests were so far removed from my expertise that saying ‘yes’ would have been a disservice.” On the other hand, it’s perfectly fine to offer a referral. So keep your contacts list up to date with experts of all types and professions.

3. The Batch

Sometimes there is no clear way to say “no,” but hashing out the situation with a “batch” of peers can help uncover even an elusive response to a client’s unacceptable request. Create a community of massage therapists who regularly gather to discuss business questions, trends, best practices and “hiccups.” The group can meet online, at a local diner or in someone’s living room.

Professor Grant calls this approach a “low-commitment” solution. If you can’t make a group meeting, no pressure! There are others to carry out the discussion.


1. Kirch, Darrell GG, MD. “A Word From the President: Caring for Ourselves, Caring for Each Other.” AAMC, 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/464804/presidents_column_resiliency_08092016.html.

2. Shields, GS, Toussaint, LL, Slavich, GM (2016). "Stress-related changes in personality: A longitudinal study of perceived stress and trait pessimism." Journal of Research in Personality, 64, 61–68. 

3. An R, McCaffrey J. "Plain water consumption in relation to energy intake and diet quality among US adults, 2005–2012." Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016.

4. Al Khatib HK, Harding SV, Darzi J, Pot GK. "The effects of partial sleep deprivation on energy balance: a systematic review and meta-analysis." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 02.11.2016.

5. Goldschmied JR, et al. “Napping to modulate frustration and impulsivity: A pilot study.” Personality and Individual Differences, 86 (2015): 164–167.