Is This Normal? “I Hate Getting Massages”
The air is heavily laden with the perfume of flowers. The masseuse is speaking in whispers, gentle as can be. They’re waiting for you to strip and lay down on the massage table and smoosh your face against the face cradle, as they lather your back with oil and prepare to go to town on your knotted muscles. For many, this scenario signals a relaxing, joyous massage appointment, an hour of pampering, a promise of blissful looseness. For me, it’s a harbinger of lots and lots of anxiety.
I get stressed from a very popular stress-busting activity — is this normal?
Let’s begin from the very first step — getting naked. Most people, especially women, have been taught to feel exposed, vulnerable, and self-conscious about their bodies. These insecurities are put front and center in a massage room, where not only is a stranger about to look at your naked skin, but is also about to vigorously rub it. For me, subjecting another person to such a task, and putting myself in such a vulnerable position, incites anxiety that leads to a constant state of being stressed.
That brings me to step two — the actual touching, rubbing, and kneading of the skin and underlying muscles itself. The feeling of anxiety that stems from being in a socially vulnerable position with a stranger — whether it stems from the situation at hand, or is worsened due to a history of living with anxiety disorder — makes people, women especially, averse to physical touch, ultimately increasing discomfort at being touched, research shows. While the study doesn’t specifically evaluate the massage environment, it does measure touch avoidance based on feelings of anxiety among women in romantic relationships, which provides a window into just how much the avoidance can increase in the company of a stranger. This vulnerability and anxiety also leads to a feeling of losing control, in which cases supposedly soothing massages can further exacerbate rigidity, discomfort and stress.
The ubiquitous massage health tip as a helpful (often unwarranted) antidote to stress also ignores the fact that some people simply don’t like to be touched. This aversion can range from a suspicion of strangers that makes the touching — even in controlled massage environments — seem like a violation of personal space, to a diagnosable phobia — called haphephobia — that can cause hyperventilation, heart palpitations, nausea and even panic attacks.
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Then comes step three — completely embracing the concept of relaxation. For people whose daily lives are intensely busy — with work, family or a myriad other things — unwinding doesn’t come easily. With modern day technology, our definitions of leisure have also changed, most often meaning we sit on the couch, stress about work and multi-task with our devices, all of which increase our mental load, Quartz reported. In this process, de-stressing itself can become an exercise in stressing about making the effort to relax. None of which, I might add, makes for a joyous massage experience. All of the above reasons combine to negate the benefit many people claim to obtain from massages — if the physical therapy fails to achieve its purpose, then the time and resources spent to seek it start to seem useless, further exacerbating anxiety and guilt that a significant portion of time and energy — which could have been used for more productive activities — is being wasted.
Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to be able to enjoy a massage. My shoulder blades have resembled an actual rock in texture since I was in the sixth grade; they need some good old-fashioned pummelling. And there’s plenty of research that proves massages have a host of benefits, from easing muscle soreness to reducing stress. Some research also shows massages improve immune system function in people with breast cancer and leukaemia by increasing blood flow in the body and brain. However, these benefits, while universal in theory, can only work if the person smooshed on the table is willing to experience them.
That person is not me. Is that normal? Yes. Is it also a little bit sad? Also yes.