Try These At-Home Massage Tips to Relieve Anxiety and Sleep Better Tonight

applying essential oil to hands

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Don’t shake hands. Don’t touch your face. Keep a distance of at least six feet. We’ve become a hands-free society, yet now, more than ever, we need to feel safe, calm, and nurtured—things that can be achieved through the power of touch and massage, according to Tiffany Field, PhD, Director of the Touch Research Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine.

“Massage stimulates pressure receptors in the skin, lessening stress hormones,” Field tells MyDomaine. “It also promotes the release of oxytocin, which can enhance a sense of trust and attachment and has been shown to improve immune function.”

Here’s some more good news: Field’s research reveals a person giving a massage experiences as great a reduction of stress hormones as the recipient. “I'm hoping there will be more touching within families to reduce tension during these stay-at-home days,” she notes. “For those without partners, there are ways to reap benefits, including self-massage.”

Massage stimulates pressure receptors in the skin, lessening stress hormones. It also promotes the release of oxytocin, which can enhance a sense of trust and attachment.

That said, precautions are necessary during these times. “I would only recommend giving and receiving massages to those living in your home,” says Elaine Larson, RN, PhD, FAAN, CIC, Professor Emerita, School of Nursing, Columbia University. And it goes without saying, everyone participating needs to be healthy. Be sure to do a good job of washing your hands before and after giving a massage, which means vigorously washing from your wrist down to your fingertips and getting in-between your fingers. “It’s creating the mechanical friction that’s most important to removing germs,” notes Dr. Larson. Dry hands completely—if any germs linger post washing, they’ll thrive in a moist environment. 

Ready for some relief? Here, Christine Mariconti, a licensed massage therapist and the Spa Director at Miraval Berkshires in Lenox, Massachusetts, along with Bob Sullivan, a Senior Massage Therapist at Bliss Spa, in Soho, New York, share tips on how to give an at-home massage—either to yourself or someone you love.

Where to Set Up an At-Home Massage

“You can perform a massage on a chair or on the floor using a blanket or yoga mat,” says Mariconti. “The important thing is that the giver and recipient are both comfortable.” A bed also works if the mattress is hard enough, adds Sullivan. “Cover the recipient in a sheet or blanket to make sure they’re warm and only expose the body part that’s being worked on.” Don’t forget to place rolled up towels under the ankles when the recipient is face down to take pressure off the ankle joints and relax the foot muscles, and under the knees when he/she is face up to take pressure off the lower back.

Products You Need For an At-Home Massage

“I don’t recommend hand creams or lotions as they absorb too quickly into the skin so you don’t get the slip and glide necessary. Oils from your pantry are more effective,” says Mariconti. “Olive, almond, grapeseed, or coconut oil are all good choices. Coconut oil usually comes in a solid, so just rub half a teaspoon in your palms for it to liquify into an oil.” For self-massage, gather tools from around your house such as tennis balls or a foam roller.

How to Set the Scene For an At-Home Massage

Dim lighting and candles are always a great mood setter. “Music can also enhance the experience. I love listening to the Rolling Stones when going 60 mph down a highway, but not during a massage. But if that's what relaxes someone, go for it. For many people, soft music with no vocals is preferable.” Other tips: Ask your smart speaker to play spa music and make sure to silence any phones.

How to Decide Where to Start

“Since massage techniques are pretty much instinctive, you can pretty much start and end wherever you want on the body,” advises Sullivan. “Just remember to ask the recipient what feels good and what level of pressure is most comfortable.”

Ready to get started? We broke down everything you need to know about massaging specific parts of the body below.

How to Give a Head Massage

We hold a lot of tension in our head and jaw and massaging this area can reduce stress and headaches,” notes Mariconti.

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient straddling a chair, hold the receiver’s head like a basketball and massage the head like you’re performing a shampoo. Move around from the sides to the top and around to the ears, gently rubbing and pulling on the lobes.

Self-massage: Put your head in your hands with your elbows resting on a table and slowly massage your scalp using the pads of your fingers. Start at the temple, and follow the tips above.

How to Give a Neck Massage

Neck muscles become fatigued from fighting gravity and keeping our heads up all day long,” notes Sullivan.

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient face down and head turned to one side, rub the side of the neck with your thumb from the jaw to the top of the shoulder, then give the area a slight squeeze using your fingers. You can also do this with the recipient straddling a chair. Rest one hand on the back of the head while using the other hand to gently squeeze and work the neck muscles.

Self-massage: Place both hands on the back of your neck and reach for the skin on each side of the spine. Squeeze by pressing and pulling between with both the thumbs and fingers, up and down the full length of the neck, then making your way to the sides.

How to Give a Shoulder Massage

“This area is strained by poor posture and all the hours we spend hunched over our devices,” says Sullivan. 

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient straddling a chair or lying face down, grab the muscles at the top of the shoulders and squeeze like you’re grabbing dough, pressing and pulling the skin between your fingers. Make your way up and down the shoulder blades. Place your thumbs on both sides of the spine at the shoulders, about an inch away from the backbone, pressing and rotating your thumbs into the back muscles and making circles.

Self-massage: Reach across with the opposite hand and squeeze the muscles from the neck out to the shoulder joint and back.

How to Give a Back Massage

“Poor posture and sitting at our computers can create muscle tension, fatigue, and backache,” says Mariconti.

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient straddling a chair, place your hands on their shoulders and knead the skin from the base of the neck out to the shoulder, squeezing and releasing. Then with palms open, place one hand on each side of the spine starting at the shoulders and walk your hands down the back, pressing and releasing.

Self-massage: Place two tennis balls between your back and the wall and press, rolling the balls up and down or side by side, targeting trouble spots.

How to Give an Arm Massage

Arm massage can relieve stress and pain from the hands up into the wrists and shoulders,” says Mariconti.

Massaging a Loved One: With the recipient in a chair or lying face up, grab the receiver’s hand and massage the palm in circular motions using your thumbs, then take each finger and rub them between your thumb and index finger. Work your way up the arm squeezing and releasing the skin using a comfortable pressure.

Self-massage: Place your thumb on the opposing palm and press on the skin, moving up to the elbow using compressions. Squeeze the bicep from the elbow up to the shoulder.

How to Give a leg Massage

“Sitting or standing for long periods of time can impede circulation in the legs,” says Sullivan.

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient lying face down, massage the calf from the ankle to the knee with your thumbs, then massage the thigh using your fist. When face up, place your hands on the sides of the shin, pressing and gliding the skin up from the ankle to the upper thigh.

Self-massage: Wrap your hands around an ankle and massage using a hand-over-hand action—like you’re climbing a rope—up to the knee. Grab the thigh muscles and squeeze from knee to hip. A foam roller works well on the back of the legs.

How to Give a Foot Massage

“Massaging the feet can increase blood circulation and reduce anxiety,” notes Sullivan.

Massaging a loved one: With the recipient lying face up, gently give each toe a rub and pull. Massage the ball of the foot with your thumbs, then use your knuckles to work the heels. Finish by placing both hands on the foot, holding it like you would a baseball bat, and twist it in opposite directions.

Self-massage: Place your fingertips on the sole of the foot and squeeze from your toes to your heel. Or roll your foot back and forth on a tennis ball. 

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