How to be mindful with a mind that’s full in 2017

Welcome to the end of the first week of the New Year. I am not alone in saying that 2016 presented its fair share of obstacles, life altering experiences and game changing events. None of us want a repeater in 2017. Last week, I set out to create an image of how I wanted this year to unfold. Within this image was a list of intentions to guide me along the process. Why not resolutions, you ask? There is a huge difference between resolving something and intending to act. The former implies that there is something wrong; that there is unfinished business hindering you from getting to where you want to be. To make such a list drives into your consciousness all the failures, road blocks and let downs of years’ past. Intentions are purposeful actions. I intend to hug strangers, eat broccoli, travel to Cuba and so on. Intentions allow you to be mindful even if the rest of your brain is locked up in the junk of 2016.

Doing for ME above all others…

One of the most powerful intentions I put on that list, which set the tone for all the others that followed was doing for ME above all others. This is huge! I am an empath and a nurturer. My profession by definition draws on both these qualities, sometimes to depletion point. Oftentimes, I forget myself and my own needs. Therefore, placing ME at the top of my intentions keeps me mindful of number 1. Channeling that nurture inward allows my higher self to steer me forward. She’s the one with the clear voice and my best intentions in mind. Her judgement of situations and people is never cloudy. She is my gut and she is always spot on. If this is too woo-woo for some of you, let me rephrase it as learning to put your needs first. If it puts you last on the list, just say NO.

Walk away from other people’s tornadoes…

You cannot take on or personalize other people’s struggles in this life. Once again, the empathic nurturing self wants to provide solutions, love the pain away, walk alongside them in their process. What you need to realize is that it is their process, not yours and trying to invite yourself into the tornado leaves a destructive path in its wake. As my post on unconditional love explored, it’s okay to walk away.

Any kind of day can be made better by working out…

I told myself whenever I was feeling off in some way or another, I would do a quick workout and then re-evaluate how I was feeling. Being in your physical body prevents you from ruminating and that form of distraction can reset your nervous system in profound ways. Feel good hormones called endorphins surge through your system every time you exercise. Why not take advantage of nature’s mood elevators? Who here has 15-20 minutes a day to feel good? I DO!!

Fantasize like a 5-year old…

Small children fantasize 24/7. Their play incorporates a ton of make believe and they love telling long drawn out stories of what they envision their future/fantasy selves to be like. My niece is always telling me her I want to be a princess fantasy complete with what her hair will look like and the types of rooms in her home. Why is it so hard for us adults to do the same? The inability to fantasize about certain things I desire for myself is like telling my inner 5 year old not to dream because I don’t believe it will come true.  There is power in falling in love with that story or as a close friend put it watching the movie of your life play out all the while rooting for the heroine – YOU. I intend to tell myself elaborate stories of future me with as many details as possible and enjoy the vision in progress.

As my list took form, I felt an energetic shift within myself. The first week of the New Year has been an optimistic one not because anything profound has actually happened, but because I feel more at home within myself than ever before. Let the above intentions guide you in making a list of your own. See what shifts occur within you. This is YOUR year.

Massage for a Broken Heart

This too shall pass…

One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.

When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.

Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.

Brain and pain rhyme for a reason, kids.

One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body.  Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.

It’s a matter of choice

Male or female?

When given the choice between a male or female therapist, which would you prefer? There are definitely many factors that play a role in this decision, including your gender, sexual orientation, religious and/or cultural mores and presumed stereotypes to name a few. Although ideally it should be an equal opportunity booking system, ultimately you want to book with someone you feel comfortable with. More often than not, the therapist that fits that bill ends up being female.

While still in school, I remember becoming very anxious about my ability to find work upon graduation. I consulted with one of my teachers, who happened to be male. I was hoping he could advise me on where it would be best to apply and what potential employers were looking for in a “rookie” therapist. Keep in mind that this teacher had a successful private practice, had been a lead therapist/supervisor at a very popular gym/spa chain and super active member of various professional groups related to massage in addition to his position as a core member of the faculty. Despite all this experience, he told me that it had been very difficult for him to obtain clients. He had to work twice as hard as the female therapists to strum up business and eventually reach the level of success he had. His skills and expertise were not the deciding factor; it was his gender that put him at a disadvantage.

Think about the power differential. The client laying on the table is in the most vulnerable state. You are unclothed and in a submissive position. You trust that the therapist towering over you has the education and skills to address your needs properly and respectfully. You hope that they don’t judge you or your body in any way. You pray their touch is firm, focused and has a flow. You want them to put you at ease from the start, so that you can mentally check out and really enjoy the benefits of the work. Regardless of gender, a true professional will be able to provide all of the above to the client, but without a doubt women win out for their perceived nurturing nature, transcending the role of “mommy” on the massage table. A recent article in Psychology Today outlines the gender gap when it comes to caretakers. Society expects women to be the natural choice due to their biology, while men are hardwired to be natural “fixers” and protectors. You might think these qualities would bode well for the male therapist, but not when it comes to massage.

Minus the watch, this is a perfectly normal image of a male therapist working the lumbar region of the back of a male client.

Then there is the tricky area of sexuality. As long as there are “happy ending” jokes circulating and brothels posing as massage parlors, the massage profession will always have to prove its legitimacy. That said, heterosexual men, whether single or married, can feel extreme trepidation at booking with a male therapist because of what other people may assume about their sexuality. Also, since the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated during massage, an erection could occur and the thoughts of this happening with a male therapist brings on much anxiety. On the other side of the coin, heterosexual women, whether single or married, can feel hesitant to book with a male because of the possibility of an attraction related to their touch or the judgment of their body in a sexual manner. I recall one of my clients telling me she didn’t care if she had shaved her legs or had cellulite dimpling on her thighs with me because “we have the same parts” but if she had gotten a male therapist she would have felt embarrassed. Throw into this mix the complicated and often skewed ways touch could be perceived after a trauma or abuse and again, the female therapist is the “safer” choice.

You may wonder then, how male therapists are ever able to get clients and be successful in this career. There are some stereotypes that work in their favor. With respect to strength, males are definitely viewed as the stronger sex and more capable of delivering deeper work. Even more so if the work is sports specific, as most massage therapists affiliated or employed by sports teams tend to be male. It took many years for Kelly Calabrese to push through these stereotypes and become the first female massage therapist employed by a Major League Baseball Team. All that aside, education and über professional conduct will prove to be the most powerful tools in bridging the gender gap. The more informed the client is about massage and its benefits, about the background of the therapist and their skills through testimonials and reviews, the more likely they will be able to make an informed decision when given the choice of male or female.