A Holistic Approach to Massage Therapists' Health

Learn how each component of our total health and well-being is dependent on the others.

February 22, 2011

We’ve all been there: We feel an ache in our back so we start stretching in the morning. Or, our clothes aren’t fitting exactly the way we remember or want them to, so we dedicate ourselves to a fitness regimen. Very simply, we sometimes compartmentalize our health into neat little categories, like nutrition or sleep requirements, and forget that each component of our total well-being is dependent on the others.

“Often we focus on what’s unhealthy or what’s wrong,” explains Kate Hathaway. “Then, we target change to one specific area. For example, we might focus on eating well but pay no attention to how we’re sleeping.” But viewing our health from a big picture perspective, so to speak, can make all the difference in the long run. “We benefit more from looking at various domains of health together,” Hathaway reminds us. “Asking ourselves how we can daily attend to all these domains, and considering how we can make changes in several areas.”

Your Health—The Key Components

When Hathaway talks about all the domains of our health, she’s really referring to some of the basic components of our everyday lives: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual/professional, work/play, money and interpersonal. She’s careful, though, to explain these components as a “beginning template,” as a great deal is going to depend on the individual. “People benefit from taking time to evaluate what value each of these domains has for them,” says Hathaway. “That is, I might value more time for spiritual health than someone else, and they might value more time for intellectual pursuits.These differ from person to person, and for the individual over time.”

Hathaway likens these components of health to a “web,” interconnected and dependent on one another for the whole.“How we think and feel influences how our bodies work at a concrete, biological level,” she explains. “In the same way, our physical health influences our mood.”

Take Action

When asked what one thing massage therapists could do today to start improving their health, Hathaway answered: mindfulness. “Be aware of how you’re spending your time and energy,” she encourages. “We need to remember that every choice we make affects our health.” For example, you might not notice that you’re regularly grabbing fast food when your schedule is packed, not thinking about the origin of your food choice. “These foods are convenient,” Hathaway agrees, “but you need to think about where they come from. Is it organic? How much corn syrup or hydrogenated fat does it have? These things matter.”

Additionally, Hathaway believes that one of the most common habits working against our good health is not getting enough sleep, as well as not paying attention to our own needs. “Health care professionals often sacrifice their own health and well-being for a client,” she explains. “You might work extra hours because it’s more convenient for the client, for example, and often the first thing that falls off is the time you spend with those close to you, community, one of the most important domains of health.”

Making healthy choices 100 percent of the time probably isn’t realistic, especially in today’s fast-paced world where we’re juggling and balancing all the different components of our lives—and health. Better understanding how the varying and different aspects of our lifestyle come to bear on our overall health can make us more conscious and aware of the choices we’re making, and ultimately help us take better care of ourselves.

Related: Four Podcasts to Boost Your Mood

Let's Talk about Stress

In recent years, we’ve discovered more and more about how stress affects a person’s health. Medical studies are continually pointing to the very real effects stress has on our bodies and minds. So, it seems only natural to pay attention—and make a real effort to find ways of dealing with stress.

One of the first things to note might come as a surprise: stress is not all bad. According to Kate Hathaway, the positive benefits of stress include alertness, increased self-confidence when induced in a challenge-based situation, and improved coping and interpersonal problem-solving skills. When stressed, a combination of physical, cognitive, emotional and social responses occur. Your heart rate and breathing might be affected, and you may tend to concentrate on the stressor. Generally, you have less access to emotional reactions, with the exception of fear and anger, and you might withdraw emotionally.

Managing stress

“Stress management,” Hathaway explains, “is an individual challenge. No one solution works for everyone.” You’ll do well to remember, too, that the environment supplies the stress and you provide the coping mechanism. This concept is easy to understand from an outside perspective, when you might not be feeling any—or very little—stress. But what can you do when you’re in the thick of it and need some techniques that can help you get control of the stress? Following are a few ideas.

The physcial effects of stress are sometimes the most bothersome. One great way to deal with the physical signs of stress, particularly if you can’t get away from work, is to simply stretch. If you’re at a desk or have some time between clients, go through a simple, basic stretching routine. You don’t need to do anything extensive to realize some benefits and get some relief. Also, pay attention to your breathing. Take a couple of deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly. These efforts don’t require a lot of time, but can go a long way in interrupting your focusing on the stressor and stop the stress from spiraling.

Be sure you’re taking care of yourself. Making sure you're eating well and getting enough sleep are integral aspects of combating the effects of stress. Ask yourself during times of high stress: Am I getting eight hours of sleep? What have I been eating, and is my diet balanced? Am I taking my vitamins? Whenever possible, get outside. Taking a brief walk over your lunch hour, for example, gives you the benefit of getting fresh air as well as new visual stimuli. Even for brief periods of time, getting a new perspective by getting up and out can really help.

Cognitively speaking, Hathaway has some suggestions, as well. “Increase your sense of control,” she explains.“Increase the ‘I can’ statements while decreasing the ‘can’t’ statements you make.” You should also be careful about the number of “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” statements you’re making, and instead focus your energy on planning, reorganizing and prioritizing. Remember, you can't go back in time, but you can effectively deal with the present.

To this point, Hathaway encourages individuals to try to eliminate the “all or nothing” approach to stressful situations. Open yourself up to the possibility of having options, and instead of passing judgment, increase your acceptance of where you are. “Acceptance is not the same as judging the situation to be good,” Hathaway explains. “But you can admit your own influence over a situation and unglue opinions from facts.” The key, as with maintaining a holistic vision of your health, is to be mindful of what’s going on physically and emotionally. “Observe yourself and your thoughts,” Hathaway suggests. “Be aware of your body posture.”

The emotional aspects of stress also need to be managed. Two places to start include practicing optimism and finding ways to increase your joy. “Access your memories, especially of any time you’ve spent in nature,” Hathaway encourages. “Practice gratitude, kindness and generosity.” The recurring theme throughout is continued here: Being mindful. “Practice staying in the moment,” explains Hathaway.