A Massage Therapist's Guide to Self-Massage
When it comes to healing, touch is the most important of all of our senses because it is linked to our skin—our largest organ—and our ability to feel. When a baby cries, we pick them up and hold them. When a friend is sad, we offer them a hug or a reassuring hand on their shoulder. When we want to show affection, we reach out to hold the hand of another. Touch is how we comfort each other. It is how we communicate when words fail us. It is how we connect.
Physical touch is absolutely vital to our health and survival.
When we offer and receive good touch, our brains release oxytocin, a neuropeptide involved in increasing positive sensations like trust, emotional bonding, and social connection while also working as an anti-stress hormone that decreases fear and anxiety. But sadly, many of us have found ourselves in isolation where touch is not safe to receive from others, especially with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. While that is just one of the many downsides and losses of this time, it also offers us a beautiful opportunity to give ourselves the supportive and healing touch we need. While nothing can fully replace the benefits of positive human connection through touch, there are alternatives like self-massage that can produce the same biological effects and create a stronger bond with ourselves and deeper understanding and appreciation of our bodies.
Just as pets enjoy a good head scratch, we love having our heads rubbed. Stress and too much time in front of computers and screens can create tension and tightness in our scalp, leading to headaches, insomnia, foggy-headedness, and fatigue. Offer yourself a good head massage by placing your hands on your head and using your fingers to massage your scalp as though you are shampooing your hair. Interdigitate your fingers and use circular motions to move your scalp around on your skull. You can also use your fingers as a rake to comb your head from your hairline to the back of your head. Next, use your thumbs to massage the base of your skull. Find where your neck and head meet and using circular motions, move your thumbs from the middle out towards your ears and back again. Play with the amount of pressure you are offering: Do you enjoy strong pressure or a lighter touch?
Having our faces touched is a sign of tenderness and love. Begin by rubbing your hands together to create some warmth. Next, press your hands lightly to your face and cover your eyes, offering some warmth and darkness to help your eyes relax. Breathe here for a moment and soak up some of that support and affection. Next, curl your index fingers and using the outer edge of your fingers, press between your eyebrows and move your fingers apart towards your temples. Repeat this several times, drawing strips along your forehead as you move up and down, smoothing your features from the middle out to the sides of your head. After you finish, use the tips of your middle and index fingers to lightly rub your temples, just to the outside of your eyes using outward circular motions. Lastly, using the pinky-side heels of your hands, rub your hands down the sides of your face starting at the jaw joint, which begins just under the temples and to the sides of your ears. Press in with your hands and move this pressure down, opening your mouth as you do so, releasing jaw tension and stress.
Interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head. Squeeze the heels of your hands together offering your neck some pressure. Move up and down your neck with this same squeezing motion. Alternately, you can keep your fingers interlaced but use your thumbs instead of the heels of your hands to offer some targeted and stronger pressure as you massage your neck. Another option is to cup one hand around the back of your neck and squeeze your neck between your fingers and the heel of your hand. Move up and down with one hand and then repeat the action with the other hand.
Using our hands to stroke our bodies produces an immediate sense of calm in our nervous systems. Begin by crossing your arms and stroking your hands down your arms a few times. Use this as a self-soothing technique, reassuring yourself like you would a child: “You’re ok. I’ve got you. You are safe.” Now place your hands on your chest and stroke down from your shoulders all the way to your thighs. Repeat several times as you encourage your body to relax and soften. Move slowly and mindfully, noticing the contours of your body and the feel of your hands. When you get to your belly, pause here and use your hands to circle around your whole abdomen, moving in the direction of digestion, up on the right and down on the left. Finish by pressing your hands into the tops of your thighs and move your hands towards your knees, smoothing your thigh muscles as you go.
The average person craves 10 to 13 hugs a day. Finish your self-massage by offering yourself a nurturing hug. Tuck your right hand under your left underarm and wrap your left hand around the outside of your right arm. Close your eyes and sink into the warmth of your own embrace. Remain in this position for 20 seconds or more and notice what changes in your body as you breathe here. Be sure to share some love and appreciation with your body for taking care of you and supporting you.