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What is mindful self-massage?

Changing the quality of touch and presence we offer ourselves


November 9, 2021
By Raphael Lavoie-Brand

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Self-care is hard. We generally take way better care of others than ourselves. This is even more true when it comes to caring touch. While it is an important expression of compassion and support toward others, it doesn’t seem to be part of our relationship with our bodies. Why is this so? 

By seeing our hands in a new light, we can tap into a powerful resource that is freely available. Mindful self-massage is paving the way for this shift in mindset and practice. To some, it feels like finding a treasure that has been hiding in plain sight. 

The story
I developed this new approach in the middle of arguably the most touch-deprived time in modern history, where COVID-19 pulled millions of lives into isolation.1 My burning question was: how can I make a difference as a massage therapist, online? 

My hands couldn’t reach through screens, but imitation could. Muscle relaxation alone couldn’t relieve anxiety, but mindfulness could. So I started blending approaches, and the response was amazing. Private clients, colleagues and friends were attending my workshops, but soon after I got requests from colleges, public libraries, teleworking businesses and virtual conferences as well.2

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You are about to learn the key principles and benefits of mindful self-massage. I will also share some simple exercises to show how one can get started, and share insights into how this approach could evolve in the future. 

Speaking the language of touch
Touch is a language. It’s our most primal language as a baby, where we build our first relationships with our caretakers and the world.3 Touch is also a human need that remains essential as we grow older.4 Did you know that the body has a specialized system of nerve fibres (called C-tactile afferents) entirely dedicated to feeling pleasant touch? These fibres are especially activated by a gentle stroking motion on the skin (like a caress or effleurage). 

Scientific research shows that it increases our level of oxytocin, which is the hormone associated with attachment and trust.5 Oxytocin is known to suppress cortisol hormone levels, associated with stress.6

What if we could speak the language of mindful and caring touch with ourselves? What if we could release stress and muscular tensions at the same time while reconnecting with our body
simply and intuitively?

Practice: Changing Our Quality of Touch
This powerful 3 minutes exercise helps develop a more caring touch towards ourselves.7 To get the most out of the experience, I recommend you do it during your first read (a good story can be spoiled if you know the end!). 

  • Take 2-3 relaxing breaths. 
  • You can plan around 30 seconds for every following step of this exercise (or more if you enjoy it).  
  • Rub your hands together until they become slightly warmer. 
  • Now choose one hand and have a close look at it as if you were seeing it for the first time. Be curious and try to notice small details you haven’t seen before.
  • Then start moving your wrist, palm and fingers very slowly in a variety of ways. Feel as if you were discovering the refined movements of your hand for the first time. 
  • Now imagine a person (or pet) you dearly care about in front of you. Reach out your hand as if you were to place it on its shoulder or back. Relax in this position for a moment, while you breathe slowly. Connect with your expression of love and care through touch. Notice your hand’s sensations. (You may choose to close your eyes for this step.) 
  • Next, place your hand on the most important person in your life. That’s right: that person is YOU! Gently place your hand on your body, anywhere that feels comfortable (e.g. heart area, abdomen, lap). Notice the quality of your touch. Allow yourself to feel the same level of care you are able to offer others. 
  • Place your second hand on your body, and feel the difference

An active meditation
Mindful self-massage is an active meditation integrating mindfulness and self-compassion principles with the power of touch. Do you remember enjoying a slow and silent walk in nature, fully aware of your breath and the present moment? If so, you have experienced the benefits of active meditation. Practicing mindfulness – the awareness of the present moment – doesn’t require you to sit still with closed eyes. In fact, slowing down your movements and being aware of your body and breath can turn many activities into mindful meditations (e.g. eating, cooking, walking, massaging and more). Mindful self-massage invites you to focus on your moment-to-moment experience while avoiding the distraction of your thoughts. 

Another key feature of the approach is self-compassion. This means giving ourselves the same kindness and care we would give a good friend.8 Researcher Kristin Neff pioneered the ever-growing body of evidence showing the benefits of self-compassion on mental health.9 Practicing self-massage is an opportunity to stop criticizing our own body and focus on kindness instead. Easier said than done? A helpful exercise is having a thought of gratitude (about anything, large or small) and transferring it into actual feelings during a self-massage session. 

Mindful Self-Massage is also inspired by neuropsychologist Richard Hanson and his method to “Hardwiring Happiness,” as one of his best-selling books is titled.10 He advocates for creating positive experiences and taking the time to fully absorb them. This builds lasting neural connections beyond short-term memory and helps counterbalance the negativity bias of our brain, reducing stress and anxiety. 

Finally, it is worth mentioning that mindful self-massage does not involve accessories. Self-massage tools can be great, but they lack an important feature: the quality of touch. To release tensions in body regions less available to our hands (like the back), passive stretches and slow movements are a good complement. 

THE BENEFITS OF MINDFUL SELF-MASSAGE
For Helen*, age 76, mindful self-massage means a “good dose of love” at night, improving her quality of sleep and well-being. For Peter, it has been a source of comfort and inner calm during a cancer-related stay at the hospital. For Audrey, it is a way to de-stress more efficiently in her short breaks at her loud and busy workplace. 

In my first year of teaching mindful self-massage online, I received hundreds of testimonials informing me about the benefits of this practice. Many weren’t surprising, since they overlapped with regular massage: muscle tension relief, stress reduction and better sleep. Yet, after a while, I started getting very interesting accounts from people who practiced regularly (sometimes daily). 

Suzan was thrilled to share that she felt like a better friend to herself in multiple ways. She reported being more aware of her body’s needs in general and responding more quickly to her needs instead of being absorbed in her routine. 

Linda noted after a month that she was more patient and less irritated with her family after work because she felt less tense in her body and enjoyed better sleep. She fell in love with self-massage and practiced every day, even at red lights while going to work! 

For Sarah, the impact of mindful self-massage also spilled over to other areas of her life. She reported better body awareness and enjoyment for her walks in nature, making them an active meditation.

While self-massage can’t replace a professional therapeutic massage, it has the advantage of being freely available at any time once the basics have been learned. Just like with meditation, regular practice seems to have positive effects on a larger scale.

Practice: The Gratitude Effleurage
This 3 minute exercise helps us relax and feel more kindness towards our body. Research has shown that regularly focussing our attention on gratitude has positive effects on mental health.11  

  • Take 2-3 satisfying breaths. 
  • Think about something you are grateful for, large or small. Pick the first thing that comes to mind. 
  • Allow yourself to feel what sensations are connected to the thought. As you breathe gently, visualize the pleasant feeling spreading inside your body. 
  • Rub your hands together to warm them up. 
  • Start doing effleurage (gliding motion) on your body. You may begin with your head and slowly find your way down towards your feet. Imagine your hands spreading the feeling of gratitude to your entire body. 
  • If you have more time, you may add a gentle petrissage (kneading motion) on your arms and legs. 

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
Mindful self-massage first appeared as a response to the context of COVID-19, but it will not be outdated when things return to normal. Loneliness, stress and anxiety were pandemics of the 21st century long before the coronavirus took the world by storm.12 

 Potential uses and research avenues applicable to mindful self-massage seem endless and could include the following ideas: 

  • Helping those affected by loneliness, including the elderly, cope with their situation, 
  • Reducing anxiety symptoms associated with illnesses or trauma,
  • Helping individuals with body image issues,
  • Supporting sexual abuse victims strengthen their trust in touch and the feeling of body ownership,
  • Teaching domestic violence offenders the value of caring touch as a stress management and prevention tool, 
  • Helping teleworking businesses improve their work environments,
  • And more – what would you add to this list of potential avenues? 

The story of mindful self-massage is just beginning. It is taking its place next to old traditions like shiatsu-based Do-In self-massage, and modern, accessory-based approaches like the successful Roll Model® by Jill Miller. The core idea is basic, yet powerful: reconnecting people with their own caring touch, through simple and intuitive techniques. 

My hope for the future is that the approach will become grounded in medical research, just like mindfulness meditation did with standardized programs like mindfulness-based stress reduction. I also hope that it will help as many people as possible to transform the relationship they have with their bodies. 

 *The names used in this article were changed for anonymity purposes. 

REFERENCES:

  1. Hasan M. (2020) What All That Touch Deprivation Is Doing To Us. New York Times, Oct. 6th, published online. 
  2. Featured in French in URBANIA Magazine : A. Gerald, Laïma (2021) L’automassage ou la découverte du trésor caché entre nos mains. URBANIA, May 1st, published online.  
  3. Montagu A. (1986) Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. 3rd Edition, Columbia University Press. 512 p. 
  4. Fields T. (2014) Touch, 2nd Edition. The MIT Press. 250 p. 
  5. Walker S, Trotter P et al. (2017) C-tactile afferents: Cutaneous mediators of oxytocin release during affiliate tactile interactions? Neuropetides 64:27-38. 
  6. Heinrichs M., Baumgartner T., Kirschbaum C., Ehlert U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biol. Psychiatry 54:1389–1398. 
  7. More exercises can be found on MindfulSelfMassage.org
  8. As stated on Dr. Kristin Neff’s home page : self-compassion.org 
  9. Neff K. (2011) Self-Compassion. The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. HarperCollins Publishers, 305 p. 
  10. Hanson R. (2013) Hardwiring Hapiness. The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Harmony Books, 304 p. 
  11. Brown J. and Wong J. (2017) How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Greater Good Magazine, June 6. Berkeley University of California, published online. 
  12. Ducharme J. (2020) Covid-19 Is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse. TIME Magazine, Mai 8th, published online. 

Raphael Lavoie-Brand is a massage therapist, a leading self-massage instructor and a former project manager at the Quebec Federation of Massage Therapists (FQM). He is the founder of the Mindful Self-Massage approach and teaches it online in a variety of settings, including colleges, libraries, businesses, virtual conferences, community organizations and health events. He is passionate about creating meaningful and impactful self-care experiences.


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