Several years ago I was at a workshop about using mushrooms for medicinal purposes.
The workshop was part of a weekend-long event at a farm that was all about mycology (the study of mushrooms) and this medicinal workshop packed a tiny room with over 100 people so that we were crammed in with standing room only.
I am not one for panic attacks, but as a tall man pushed in on the group I was in, towering over me and shifting the group forward, I found that my heart was starting to race and that I was having trouble getting full breaths of air.
I pushed through the group out of the room and ran outside to sit with my back against a tree, but my heart and breath were still not calming down.
But then I decided the best thing to do was to start massaging my hands.
I worked on my hands for a few minutes, and then kicked off my shoes and started massaging them as well.
It was at that point that I noticed that the tension in my body started to release, my breathing became smoother and deeper, and my heart slowed down.
I am recounting this story because a lot of the time when you read articles about calming anxiety, you will often be told that the first thing to do is to do some deep slow breaths.
But if you are in the midst of a high anxiety experience (like a panic attack, which I am not prone to but apparently experienced that day) grabbing a deep breath is sometimes not an option.
I will be talking about deep breathing on another day but if that is not working and there is too much tension in your body to start there, you can start with self-massage.
Which Body Parts to Massage for Effective Relaxation?
Everyone has instincts to self-massage to a degree.
When one has a headache, the urge is to massage the head, and that instinct is a good one to have.
But anxiety takes over the entire system and unless one is very good at controlling one’s automatic body systems (as with biofeedback), anxiety can take over the body and not let go, no matter how much you will it to do so.
The good thing is that there are parts of your body that have more power to connect with the entire body system, especially the nervous system, that will allow you to massage yourself in a way that will decrease your anxiety systemically.
We are going to talk about this body-part by body-part so that you can get a sense of where to go with your massage until you feel a bit of relief.
When you feel that part of your body is thoroughly massaged on both sides, you can move on to the next body part.
One word of caution for women who are pregnant… Some of these massages are not appropriate for pregnant women due to energy points related to pregnancy that are in the areas discussed in this article. So please go to a professional to get a massage or, since many of us are not working on clients right now, call a massage therapist that is an expert in pregnancy massage that can help you work on yourself safely.
Massaging Your Hands To Reduce Anxiety
The hands are a direct access point to the frontal lobes of the brain, which control motivation and focus of attention.
There are also an enormous amount of nerve endings in the hands and so if you start to work on the hands with gentle massage, you can relax your body through those nerve endings.
I have had clients talk through their entire massage session but then fall asleep the moment I got to the hands.
It is so powerful, that I put it first before catching a smooth breath, because massaging the hands is something we can control and sometimes catching our breath is not if we are too tense.
I would recommend working on the palms and all of the fingers.
How to Massage Your Hands
Use your thumb to work on the palm of the opposite hand and the backs of the hands. Then squeeze each finger with the opposite hand a few times. Use your thumb to focus on any point that feels especially sore if that feels good to you. It is likely you found a meridian point that needs attention and that will help your system to relax. When you feel ready, switch hands.
In addition to nerve endings, there are also many meridian points in the hand according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, and massaging them could help soothe them and therefore relax you and your body systems into greater relaxation.
I would like to remind you that if you are listening to the CDC guidelines of washing your hands for 20 minutes, you should be scrubbing them vigorously.
If you do the scrubbing with a bit of intentionality you can also massage your hands and focus on those points of your hand that feel like they are holding tension.
In the midst of all of this worldwide craziness, it is nice to take a moment to focus on self-care, even if it is just a few seconds.
Also, I have found that my hands have become a bit raw from washing so much.
Even though I wash my hands just as much in a day when I am seeing clients, the difference is right now I am not putting lotion or oil on my hands to work on clients and which usually keeps my hands moisturized.
Therefore I have been using lotion to keep the skin on my hands moisturized and I get a few moments in for a soothing massage for my hands as I do so.
Massaging Your Feet To Reduce Anxiety
Most people have heard of reflexology. It is a healing modality that is focused on healing the body through energy points that connect to different physical systems of the body and organs.
The main takeaway for people that want to benefit from reflexology but don’t know the specific reflexology points, is to know that there are so many points in the feet (and hand and also ears, which we are getting to next) that if you spend some time rubbing your feet, it is like giving your whole body and all of its organs and systems a healthy massage, even if you don’t know the specific points.
In my massage therapy practice, working on the feet is the other place on the body that will have people falling asleep the fastest.
In addition to the reflexology points in your feet, there are also a lot of nerve endings that connect to the entire body.
This is why when you are anxious, massaging your feet will help you to release anxiety as well.
The process of your body relaxing from a foot massage is an automatic biological reaction to the physical sensation of the massage, so even though you may not be able to slow your breath or your heart rate, your feet will be a good way to override that anxiety.
How to Massage Your Feet
It is best to work on one foot at a time.
Use your thumbs to massage your inner arch and the end of your foot where your toes connect (this is called the transverse arch).
Squeeze and massage each toe.
Massage the heel and the ankle.
Massage the top of your feet… the opposite side to your sole. I like to get between the bones on the tops of the feet, there are very helpful meridian points in that area.
Then use both hands to squeeze the whole foot a few times. This should feel good and comforting.
When you feel ready, move on to the other foot.
Massaging Your Ears to Reduce Anxiety
The third area that will help you with relaxation is the ears.
Like the feet and the hands, the ears also hold a lot of importance in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
According to acupuncturists, the ears hold meridian points for every system and organ in the body and can treat imbalances just as well at acupressure applied to the entire body for many ailments.
I have received acupuncture at clinics that only worked on patients through the ear meridian points and it is a very effective form of healing.
For massage purposes, it is just important to know that you can access your entire energy system through the ears and so it is a good idea to massage them often, especially when you feel anxious.
Besides feeling good, an ear massage is another good way of getting a “full-body-massage” by only working on one body part (like the feet).
How To Massage The Ears
Using your index and thumb, start massage your ears by rubbing and pressing along the outer ridge and lobe.
Continue into the inner part of the ear (but not deep into the ear. Do not stick your fingers in your ear – that’s not healthy).
Just get where you can gently squeeze with your thumb and index finger.
When you have finished rubbing your ears, you may want to finish by gently pulling down on the earlobes.
Hold that for a little bit… It is calming to the system.
Other Body Parts To Massage to Relieve Anxiety
The other places I am going to mention here are not as important or connected to the nervous system but may help you feel better, too.
Tension in the Face
Many people have habitual ways of holding tension in the face.
My habit is raising my eyebrows. I don’t realize I am doing it until I wash my face and then I can feel the muscles relax as I massage the soap into my forehead.
The interesting thing about face tension is that a human’s emotional state sometimes can be stimulated by the way one holds one’s face.
So if the events of the day are having you hold your face in a way that has your emotional system thinking you are anxious or sad, you can perpetuate those feeling by holding that position in your face.
You very well may have a good reason to be anxious or sad (especially right now), but by relaxing the face a bit with a little gentle massage, you may be able to release some of the anxious feelings related to that face position.
There have been many studies that show that holding a smile (or a pencil between the teeth which uses the same muscles) on one’s face will create a joyful emotional state, regardless of what the person was feeling beforehand.
To massage the face, you want to get a good lotion or oil (if you already use moisturizer that might be a good choice because you know your skin likes it) and put a little on your fingertips.
You don’t need much or any at all, but if you are gliding your fingers at all on the face, you want them to be able to move without pulling the skin.
If you don’t have lotion, just massage your face with gentle circles with your fingertips.
You can massage your forehead, between the eyebrows, temples, along your cheekbones, jaw, and along your chin bone.
If you pay attention, you will feel where your face is holding tension by how it reacts when you start to massage it gently.
Grounding Your Energy: Top of Head / Top of Shoulders
I am not going to get into a deep theory about the energetic system of the body right now, but it is important to know that simply by pressing on the top of your head or the tops of your shoulders with your fingertips or palms, and giving your arms a bit of a squeeze by the opposite hand, you can gently and easily ground your energy a bit, which will help you if you are feeling anxious.
Regardless of what that does to the energy system, it just feels good. It is comforting and it is often a reason that people cross their arms.
Do this for a little while and you should feel yourself settling down.
When most people think of releasing tension from the body, they usually think that that means focusing on the neck and shoulders.
But if we are really taking focus on the helping relieve the nervous system directly and making conscious choices to override the fight-or-flight physiological responses of the autonomic nervous system that we cannot control (breath, sweat, hormone release, heartbeat) then massaging the areas of the body that connect most directly with the nervous system is the best way to use massage in the midst of anxiety.
As you do these massages, it is a good idea to monitor your breath and see if you can start to take deeper breaths. That will help the massage take greater effect.
You may be massaging your hands and feel tension release in another part of the body, like in your shoulders or lower back
This is normal and a good sign that it is working.