Massage Therapy

How to practice self-care during the holiday season

Amanda Erickson RMT

Our Western world and busy lives tell us that our productivity is a measure of our success. We are conditioned to believe we must show up, persevere, and keep going; no matter what.  

However, when we observe nature at this time of year, everything slows down. Squirrels have stashed their treasures, the birds fly south, and creatures hibernate until the warmth of spring returns.  Yet here we are running around like there’s never enough time in the day.

I have been experimenting with what it means to listen to my nervous system. I  crave the slow days and evenings at home.  Like nature, this time of year has me turning inwards. I want to curl up beside a fireplace with a pile of knitting and endless pots of tea, all while my brain says, “Go! Holidays are around the corner. Prepare! Do more!”

The looming holiday season is full of events, to-do’s, and social commitments. Often it can feel overwhelming. Tune into yourself and listen to what aligns you as you navigate times of busyness.

Here are a few tips to get started:

1.     Manage your schedule

Physically scheduling in my self-care time is a great help and a huge start to the process. Treating your body to a massage or acupuncture is a great way to turn down the heightened nervous system at this time of year, and to let that unneeded shoulder tension dissipate. Take a new yoga class, or get a session with a kinesiologist, physiotherapist, or other health professional to get the support you need.


2.     Get outside

 Take a walk in nature, even if it's just stepping outside your office or front door for a stroll around the block. Notice the beautiful details of nature; take it all in, and relish in the present moment.


3.     Slow down

Take five deep, nourishing breaths. Try this before you leave the house for work, or before you head out to tackle that list of to-do’s. Try a few minutes of meditation of savasana (corpse pose) to slow the mind.


4.     Cultivate gratitude

Write down five things you are grateful for in this moment. Focussing on what you’re grateful for helps give you perspective and realize all that you currently have.


From my experience, when we tune into self we can use our time more efficiently. The above options have proven to me that when we prioritize turning towards alignment of heart, mind, and body, the to-do list becomes checked off, and the time to accomplish it is all there.  Taking just a few extra moments to turn inwards with ourselves gives us more time in return.

No pain, no gain? No way.

Massage Therapy, Bruce Martell
I have a high tolerance for pain. I know it needs to hurt. Just do what you need to do. No pain, no gain. Pain is just weakness leaving the body.

These are just some of the common refrains I hear daily in my practice. Anyone who has experienced massage therapy has probably had a painful treatment or two. It’s typical for people to tolerate a barrage of painful stimuli for an hour and then brag about how much pain their massage therapist inflicts upon them. And most people who want a ‘therapeutic’ massage would only consider seeing someone that gives painful treatments.

Massage Therapy, Integrated Health Clinic

Is it necessary to endure a punishing or distressful treatment to get the desired results? In short: maybe not.

There is a common belief that if massage isn’t painful it can’t be therapeutic. This is not surprising when you hear people talk about how much better they feel after receiving their weekly thrashing. And, what about all the different tools available for massage? They look more like tools for performing some sort of medieval torture. Almost everyone who has seen a massage therapist, physiotherapist or chiropractor has been told they should be rolling on a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, or a golf ball. All of these practices have an extremely high ‘ouch factor’. And therapists can become famous (or infamous) for the excruciating treatments they perform.

The belief that massage needs to be painful has permeated our culture and this belief is not going anywhere soon.

Here’s how I feel: there’s good pain and there’s bad pain. The line between them can be a bit blurry and it’s not always easy for therapists to distinguish between the two. Everyone’s sensitivity to pain varies, so the level of pressure that may produce good pain for one may result in the opposite for another. This is why communication between therapist and patient is paramount.

When the nervous system takes notice, good things can happen. It is here that our therapy should be focused, because it’s the nervous system that controls the levels of tension in our muscles.

Anytime a patient recoils, tenses or cries out in response to a technique, they are probably experiencing bad pain and the therapist should lighten up. When this happens, the body is protecting itself. The nervous system senses a threat and nothing good will come of it.

Massage Therapy, Bruce Martell

Good pain is an oxymoron. Maybe we should come up with a new name for it because pain by the very definition is ‘an unpleasant experience’.  This feeling of good pain is anything but unpleasant and, in fact, it can be downright soothing and comforting. This is the feeling people seek when they come for massage.

Massage treatments don’t need to hurt or cause any discomfort. I’m not saying massage should be light and fluffy as this doesn’t satisfy anyone. To be effective, massage needs only to provide novel stimuli for the nervous system. Giving the patient the dramatic sensation of what is truly needed to make a change will produce therapeutic results. That may mean lingering on a sore spot to take the patient to the edge of discomfort – delivering the good pain. Providing the feeling of an itch that has been scratched and sending that positive message to the brain. This is where the nervous system really takes notice, in the space just beyond the good pain but not yet at the bad pain.

Massage Therapy, Bruce Martell

When the nervous system takes notice, good things can happen. It is here that our therapy should be focused, because it’s the nervous system that controls the levels of tension in our muscles. The only way to affect change is through this system and we can do this simply by changing the input it receives. A change in input can change the output.

If you’ve tried massage and been unsatisfied because the treatment was either too aggressive to be of any comfort or too light to feel like anything was done, I encourage you to try again. There is someone out there who will find the sweet spot, the place where good things can happen.

Four common myths about massage

The 4 Myths of Massage

We live in an exciting age of information wherein anything we need to know is only a couple of clicks away; knowledge has never been more within our immediate grasp. There's only one problem: along with this easily accessible information comes an abundance of misinformation. This is perhaps most prevalent in the health and wellness industry and, more specifically, in the realm of massage therapy. Far-fetched claims are infinitely plentiful on the internet, everything from clearing bad energy to correcting poor posture.

So, I’ve decided to make a short list of some of the most popular myths surrounding this profession as follows:

1)    It has to hurt to be helpful. 

Nope. No truth to that statement. Although it’s not surprising this belief has permeated our culture. Therapists can become famous (or infamous) for the excruciating treatments they perform…sigh. 

Massage doesn’t work by pounding muscles into submission, it doesn’t work by stretching or deforming fascia, and more pressure does not equal a more therapeutic effect. So how does it work? We don’t really know exactly, but we do know a few things. Basically, your brain controls your thoughts, emotions, how you move, and your level of muscle tension. It also has an amazing capacity to either turn-up or dial-down the intensity of pain you experience. When you are touched, nerve endings are stimulated in the skin, messages are sent to the brain, and if the brain likes these messages good things can happen.

So, if massage is to be effective, it is through the successful engagement with the patient’s nervous system, i.e. brain. And since pain is like an alarm system to alert us to any potential threat, giving a painful treatment may keep that alarm ringing.
Protecting us from threat is a high priority for our nervous system and pain intensity can increase when we feel unsafe. Inflicting pain doesn’t usually make a person feel safe. A painful treatment can have the opposite effect of what is intended. A good massage may take you to the edge of pain, but hurt is unnecessary.

Massage Therapy, Bruce Martell

2)    It releases toxins, or detoxifies the body.

Detoxification - sounds good, doesn’t it? Sometimes it can feel like toxins have been released after a good massage. Maybe that’s why for decades this has been a prevalent belief in massage therapy culture. However, there is no research to suggest this happens. 

A plausible explanation on the mechanism of which these toxins are supposed to be eliminated eludes us. Are they squeezed out of muscle like water from a sponge? And what, exactly, is meant by toxin? There are some vague ideas out there. Some would say it refers to environmental substances like BPA (we all remember the great plastic water bottle scare of the late nineties). Others say toxins refer to metabolic waste such as lactic acid. Regarding the former, no amount of pushing on muscles will squeeze toxic chemicals into the bloodstream, this is not scientifically plausible. And as for lactic acid, there is research suggesting that massage might actually impede its elimination. Interesting article here.

You don’t need to worry about toxins accumulating anyway, our liver and kidneys take care of that.

3)    It breaks down scar tissue.

Ah, the ubiquitous scar tissue. It’s at the root of all mysterious pains. There are many who make this claim, and no shortage of techniques and instruments to break down this apparent scar tissue. And once it’s gone all pain will vanish and life will return to normal. What a neat and tidy story. Too bad it’s not true.

There is no evidence to suggest our bodies are riddled with scar tissue and no convincing story telling us how we would acquire it. Even if it were true, how do we know this causes pain? It doesn’t make sense; the scars on our skin caused by cuts and abrasions don’t usually hurt. Scar tissue is pretty fibrous stuff; it’s made strong to protect us from further injury. The only way to break down this stuff is with a very sharp instrument, i.e. scalpel.

If your therapist tells you he’s breaking down scar tissue, you can be sure he is more in tune with pseudoscience rather than science.

4)    A relaxation massage isn’t therapeutic.

Therapeutic: causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy

There is a negative connotation associated with relaxation massage; namely that it is only appropriate for spas and cruise ships, that it’s only purpose is to pamper the privileged. I frequently hear patients say, as if ashamed, that they are not seeing me for relaxation, for it is therapy they need, not relaxation. However, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Here are two definitions of therapeutic: 

From the Cambridge Dictionary- “causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy”

And from the Oxford Dictionary- “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being”

It seems to me like the word, therapeutic, describes a relaxation massage perfectly. 
Why are people so down on relaxation? It can lead to many great things such as: improved sleep, more energy, increased concentration and a higher tolerance for annoying things in life, like pain. And let’s not forget about stress. Being more relaxed definitely enhances our ability to cope with stress. It would be ridiculous to suggest that relaxation has no therapeutic effects considering excessive stress is linked to almost all chronic diseases. 

It is clear relaxation is an important part of massage therapy, if not the most important part. 

In conclusion, I would advise looking at all claims about massage therapy with a skeptical mind. There is no such thing as a magic bullet in this industry, and if it seems too good to be true it probably is. Thankfully, massage doesn’t need grandiose claims. There is only one claim that matters: the general effects are plain to see; people feel better after massage.