A Simple Guide To Head-To-Toe Self-Massage
Keep In Touch With Yourself
There’s no denying the importance of touch. Skin-to-skin contact is encouraged when babies are born as it helps regulate the newborn’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing. For a wide range of living organisms—from worms to humans—studies have shown touch to be an essential modality for both growth and development. And touch has also been proven to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, improve sleep, regulate digestion, and help us empathize.
And yet, in the past two years, we’ve collectively (globally!) been repeatedly dissuaded from touching altogether. The mandate comes for good reason of course but, still, our bodies clearly crave and benefit from touch. When we can’t engage in it, what becomes of our own health?
Thankfully, while we slowly reapproach hugs and handshakes, we can take treatment for touch deprivation into, well… our own hands. (Sorry, we had to!) We can dance. We can rest beneath the best weighted blankets. We can turn to self-pleasure. And for a soothing everyday routine, we can self-massage from head to toe. Here’s how.
While self-massaging caters to our physical beings, our mental state can play a role too, even if unwittingly. To receive the best benefits and allow for effective relaxation, licensed massage therapist Butch Phelps, FMT says to take a less-is-more approach.
“There are some bad misconceptions about massage, like using rolling pins or any other hard object to force the muscle to let go,” he says. “The truth is, massage must include the brain letting go—with less physical pressure.” Phelps explains that if too much pressure is applied, our bodies will naturally fight the pain by contracting our muscles, thus making the massage harder to both enjoy and issue real relief.
He reminds us, “Muscles are tight because of using them, stress, and anxiety. Two out of three are mental responses, so if the brain is not included, a massage may make it worse.” To keep it simple, remember less pressure is the best pressure.
Another element to consider is our environment. According to Amy LeBlanc, LMT, BCTMB, a certified massage therapist and founder of Finding Balance, the ambiance is important. “Take the time to create the right scene at home,” she says. “Make your space relaxing. Dim the lights. Play soft, calming music. Grab some pillows and blankets. And consider some aromatherapy with 100 percent natural essential oils.”
As a guide, LeBlanc has a few suggestions. “I would use lavender if it’s been a particularly stressful day,” she says. “Or at night, maybe 30 minutes before bed.” If you’re having trouble focusing or need to stave off the midday slump, LeBlanc offers lemon. And if you’re seeking a cooling effect, she recommends peppermint, which is “especially nice on tired feet and calves.”
Whichever you choose, don’t use the concentrated oils directly on your skin as they can cause irritation. Instead, start with a fragrance-free base—we like this body oil from Maude crafted from organic jojoba, coconut, argan, and castor oils—and add a drop of scented essential oil.
If you prefer not to smell like a flower or fruit, that’s fine, too. You can also embrace aromatherapy by opening the oil bottle and taking a deep inhale. “Smell is a powerful sense,” says LeBlanc. “You’ll be amazed at how this one small action sets your frame of mind.”
Lastly, if you don’t know where to begin on your body, don’t overthink it; according to LeBlanc, our muscles can but don’t need to be in pain to benefit from the stimulation. “Massage where muscles are tired, or all over,” she says.
From the scalps of our heads to the soles of our feet, here are a few ways to tend to our bodies through touch.
Massaging Your Face & Scalp
First things first, apply a bit of oil so as not to “drag the skin,” says certified UK-based massage and aromatherapist Alison Angold. She suggests employing upward sweeping motions, using the palms of your hands for your neck and full fingers for your cheeks. Above and along your jaw, as well as on your forehead, gently create circles with your fingertips. Don’t forget your temples! And when still catering to the forehead, use your whole hand to stroke it from its center to its sides.
For more targeted relief, softly pinch or simply apply pressure to points along the eyebrow, and use your ring finger to make circles under the eyes, too.
Angold says these movements will help relieve tension, lift skin (especially on the jowls), and ease a furrowed brow. Phelps adds that face massages can assist in alleviating headaches and teeth grinding, too.
(If you’re interested in using facial tools to optimize your experience, we love Dehiya Beauty’s variety of curved and toothed gua sha stones, as well as this how-to video from the Asian American Girl Club.)
For the scalp, use one hand to support one side of the head, and then use your nails—first gently and then vigorously—to create “friction,” says Angold. Not only will this release tension in the scalp, but it will also stimulate circulation to the hair follicles to encourage growth. (We love a twofer!) Once the scratching is complete, use the pads of your fingertips to massage your scalp with slow movements (as if you were shampooing). Then, take large sections of your hair as close to the root as possible and gently tug on them. “This should not be a painful movement,” Angold reminds us.
As easy as our heads are to access, it’s an area people often neglect, so “don’t forget to include the ears!” says LeBlanc. (To get started, consider these four pressure points.)
Note: If you’re interested in using essential oils to address a specific facial concern like acne, pigmentation, or dryness, you can use this list as a guide. However, remember that the skin on our faces is thinner and more sensitive than the skin on our bodies and that essential oils are potent. Before using, consult with your dermatologist and/or do a patch test on your inner arm and check for signs of irritation over the next 24 hours. Otherwise, keep it simple by going sans essential oil and using a carrier oil like almond or olive instead. Those are often naturally nourishing and packed with vitamins and antioxidants.
Massaging Your Arms, Hands, Shoulders, And Neck
According to LeBlanc, the shoulders and neck are the number one reason her clients get massages. This isn’t all that surprising considering the poor posture and well-documented health risks that can develop from us spending more than half of our waking hours sitting. Stress can be stored in these same areas, leading to both pain and tension.
What may be unexpected, however, is just how far the effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have gone: “We’re on digital devices so much, our forearms are feeling it,” says LeBlanc.
To begin massaging our shoulders and neck, prenatal massage therapist and founder of the Glow Birth & Body spa, Sara Lyon, offers insight. “Hook your fingers over your bulky shoulder muscles—your “trap” muscle—and roll your fingers over it so that you can feel the fibers under your skin,” she says. To add depth to the technique, lower your ear to the opposite shoulder to stretch the trapezius muscle as you continue to massage the area.
Angold suggests we rest on a comfortable surface for the oft-forgotten forearm, then use the opposite palm or forearm to perform sweeping strokes from wrist to elbow. (You can also perform circles with your thumb instead.) For the upper arm, Angold says to repeatedly “grab” it with the opposite hand while moving upwards toward the shoulder.
To treat your hands, use the opposite thumb to make circles on the top of the hand and in the palm. Then massage each finger and gently pull them downward. If you love a visual as much we do, look to the lovely Tracee Ellis Ross for a soothing tutorial. (It’s practically ASMR and, since she’s the daughter of Diana, we listen when she speaks!)
Massaging Your Stomach And Back
More than a massage for sore six-packs (kudos to you, by the way), a massage of the abdomen can both ease bloating and encourage waste to be dispelled, says Angold. To start, use both hands to stroke the stomach from side to side. Then grab the sides of your waist and perform gentle “pinching” using the whole hand. Finally, stroke the abdomen up the right-hand side, across the top, and down the left-hand side.
To tend to our backs, an understandably out-of-reach area, LeBlanc suggests making use of a tennis ball, especially to address lower back pain. “Just put the tennis ball on the floor and roll your body weight over it,” she says. For less pressure, place the ball on a soft surface like a couch.
I myself have tried this technique, positioning a ball between my body and a wall, maneuvering up, down, and side to side until relief is felt. And while tennis balls can certainly do the trick, I’m eyeing this set from Scoria made from sustainably harvested cork. Just remember: “There is no need to press so hard to put a hole in the wall,” says Phelps.
No tennis balls? No problem. According to Lyon, our fists are just as effective. She suggests that we bend forward—letting our head and torso hang as much as our hamstrings will allow—and then use our fists to pound from the bottom of our tailbone, across our hips, and up the middle of our lower backs. When done, slowly roll up with your knees bent. “This simple move releases stagnation built through days of working sitting or standing still at your workstation,” says Lyon.
Massaging Your Legs & Feet
Much like our face and hands, Lyon notes that our feet contain pressure points to treat the entire body and mind. To bring us “back down to earth,” she offers this:
Sit in the butterfly pose and open your feet like you’re opening a book.
Use your thumbs to press into the soft hollow area just under the ball of your foot.
Massage the acupressure points with slow and steady pressure—then press, hold, and breathe. You can even use the aforementioned tennis balls on the underside of the foot.
To treat our legs, Angold advises that we use both hands to apply long, firm strokes from the ankles to the thigh, including up the calf. At the thigh, grab the skin with both hands and perform gentle wringing movements, which she says will not only release tension but the fatty deposits in the area, too.
And there you have it, from top to bottom.
While self-massage may not cure all of our or the world’s ills, the experts here argue that it’s still one of the most important things a person can do for themselves. They also unanimously encourage shorter, more targeted sessions of self-massage instead of full-body treatments. This way, you can get exactly the pain relief and relaxation you need without overwhelming yourself. And remember that applied pressure should never result in pain.
If you’re seeking to strengthen even more bonds during this socially-distanced season, here are a few ways to reconnect with nature, your emotions, and more.
Do you know where you hold the most tension in your body? Give a little self-massage a try, and let us know how it goes in the comments below!
Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!