There is a lot of focus placed on physical self-care, for some obvious reasons, in the massage therapy profession. More recently, however, the fundamental necessity of taking care of our emotional and mental health is getting more attention, and with good reason.
When we are not tuned into our emotional and mental health—and taking proactive measures to care for both—being able to adapt to the stress and challenges we all face at times is nearly impossible. For massage therapists, that might also mean missing the signs of burnout that, when left unattended to, can be as serious and potentially career-ending as physical injury.
“Try to think of mental and emotional health as your ability to cope with daily struggles,” says Tom McDonagh, PsyD, owner of Good Therapy SF. “We all have a mental baseline and it’s normal to have up days and down. But the ability to stay within our range depends on making daily healthy choices and having useful coping skills.”
Especially in a profession like massage therapy, where massage therapists are often described as empaths who work to help others find relief from their own acute and chronic issues, being able to honestly assess your own emotional health and take action to correct any deficits is important.
“An empath is someone who deeply feels the emotions of others and is impacted by the moods of the people around them,” says Stephanie Stathas, LPC with Thriveworks in Wyomissing, PA. “Empaths are highly sensitive and pick up on cues from people that others may miss.” But just because empaths may be more adept at picking up on cues in others that are often overlooked, it does not mean they are always as good at identifying these cues in themselves.
“Compassion fatigue or burnout is a real concern, so massage therapists need to be on the lookout for their own needs as well,” McDonagh says.
How to Identify Mental and Emotional Burnout: Some of the Warning Signs
First, it’s important to understand that mental wellness and emotional wellness are not interchangeable terms. “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices,” says Stathas. “Emotional health is having both an awareness of your emotions and the ability to manage and express those feelings in an age-appropriate manner.” In other words, emotional health is one slice of the mental health pie.
Stathas and McDonagh both list warning signs people should be mindful of that suggest they need to pay more attention to their mental and emotional health, including:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in eating patterns
- Changes in interactions with others
- No longer enjoying activities that used to be enjoyable
- Feeling tired and low on energy
- Inability to concentrate and focus
- Avoidant behaviors, like not engaging in social activities, isolation
- Somatic issues with no medical cause, such as headaches, stomach problems or experiencing excessive worry, fear and/or sadness
Something else to remember is that physical pain or problems may not always have a physiological cause. Poor mental and/or emotional health can manifest as physical ailments. Therefore, treating the physical problem may not fix the issue as it stems from a place of mental or emotional wellness.
Mental and Emotional Self-Care: Being Proactive, Taking Care
One of the most important things people can do when it comes to nurturing their emotional and mental wellness is give these two aspects of their health and well-being priority before they’re in crisis.
“The physically demanding needs of a massage therapist make their work boundaries particularly important,” McDonagh says. These include physical, emotional and professional boundaries—all of which are necessary and oftentimes overlap and influence one another.
Especially around emotional boundaries, massage therapists need to be aware of when their clients may be experiencing issues that require a referral to another health care provider, as well as when they themselves may need distance because a client or a particular situation is proving too emotionally challenging.
Awareness around all of these different aspects of self-care can help you feel more in control and recognize when you need to lean into taking better care of your emotional and mental health.
“Being proactive with your mental and emotional health will allow you to feel more in control, as you can choose certain techniques and practices when feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or triggered the moment that you recognize early warning signs and before the problems manifest,” Stathas says.
The good news is that when you are aware and vigilant about your emotional and mental health, there are a variety of different and relatively simple ways you can disrupt a downward spiral or turn toward burnout:
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. The joy and satisfaction you get from being a massage therapist can be diminished when you’re in pain or overscheduled. Take initial signs of injury seriously and build short breaks into your massage therapy schedule to ensure you’re giving yourself enough time to reset, both physically and mentally.
TIP: Having five or six techniques you regularly use in your massage sessions is beneficial in a variety of ways. For starters, varying technique will help you protect against injury. Additionally, you’ll be able to reach more clients and keep the practice of massage therapy interesting.
Proper hydration and nutrition are key. Harvard’s School of Public Health is clear about the wide-ranging benefits of proper hydration. “Drinking enough water every day is crucial for many reasons: to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells and keep organs functioning properly,” they note. “Being well-hydrated also improves sleep quality, cognition and mood.”
TIP: Go nuts! Having a stash of almonds or mixed nuts to grab between massage sessions can help keep hunger at bay until you can grab a proper meal.
Let your practice stay at your practice. Your emotional and mental health depend, in part, on you being able to leave your work at work so you can focus on and enjoy other areas of your life. If at home or away from work you’re constantly thinking about your clients, tomorrow’s schedule or how you can help someone access the benefits of massage therapy, you are putting yourself at risk for burnout.
TIP: Here, a digital fast can be helpful. Don’t pair your work email with your phone so you aren’t tempted to continually check incoming messages. Also, be clear about what your clients can expect in terms of communication. An email or phone call received after hours does not need to be returned until you’re back in your practice. Setting these expectations with your clients early and often can help you protect your mental and emotional health by giving you the time away you need to recharge.
Practice self-compassion. Being kind to ourselves is not always easy and doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but is a key component of mental and emotional health. According to Christopher Germer, PhD, and author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, self-compassion starts with trying to stay present. “The less we resist, the less we suffer,” he says. Acknowledge your feelings, and then if you start using defensive strategies to downplay something that hurt you, for example, like a client canceling or giving a bad review, or a colleague saying something rude, try being kind to yourself instead. Take a walk, call a friend or just sit quietly with yourself for 15 minutes.
TIP: Practicing self-compassion can be hugely beneficial for your mental and emotional health while also allowing you to be more proactive. “You are more likely to step away in a timely fashion,” Germer says, which has the benefit of both helping you recognize early warning signs of burnout and the reassurance that you can prioritize your mental and emotional health in a way that helps you more quickly rebound.
What’s important to remember is that emotional and mental health self-care practices are highly individual and you need to find what works best for you. “Self-care looks different and is unique for everyone, so find the things that work for you and maintain them in your daily routine,” Stathas says.
The key is to find things that work for you and turn them into positive habits. For example, someone’s daily routine may include going on a walk during their lunch break, keeping a journal with a daily gratitude list, and setting aside time every day to talk with family and friends. Another’s daily mental wellness routine may not include any of these things, but could be just as beneficial. It is all about personalizing your routine to fit your life and needs.
Benefits of Mental and Emotional Self-Care Routines: Why This Self-Care Matters
“The benefits of creating and maintaining regular mental and emotional self-care practices statistically show that it helps to manage feelings of stress and anxiety, boost feelings of self-esteem, lower your risk of getting sick, increase energy, and enhance overall quality of life,” Stephanie Stathas, LPC, with Thriveworks in Wyomissing, PA, explains. “Self-care relies on an increase in self-awareness too. Practicing self-awareness can help you recognize patterns in your emotions, including situations that can trigger worsened symptoms.”
Tom McDonagh, PsyD, owner of Good Therapy SF, notes that in addition to reducing anxiety and depression, having a strong mental health self-care routine has been found to reduce blood pressure, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, control weight, build stronger relationships with family and friends, and improve sleep.
“I try to remind people that the brain and body are part of the same system,” McDonagh says. “So while physical care is important, so is mental health.” The key is for everyone to learn what personally signals to them that mental and emotional fatigue and burnout are imminent or creeping—and then be proactive about taking steps to protect their mental and emotional well-being.