How “Touch Anxiety” Nudged Me Into Massage Therapy

Most people get into massage therapy or the healing arts because they have a deep desire to “help people,” to nurture, or to be of service.

I got into massage therapy because I desperately wanted to feel better.  I was in pain, stressed out, and unhappy. My decision to look into massage training was logical, practical and completely about me.

Ultimately I got into massage therapy because of contrast. My twenties showed me how I did NOT want to feel in my body, and what I did NOT want in a career.

I was sitting too many hours at a desk and very stressed out at my job. At 23, I knew that I was too young to be feeling so uncomfortable, awkward and overwhelmed. Massage school appealed to me as a smart way to learn about the body and how to feel better.

In addition, I was embarrassed and disappointed in my overwhelming anxiety around touching people. Yep! Touching people was terrifying to me.

I was extremely uncomfortable touching anyone who was not in my very inner circle. If you were a coworker, acquaintance, friend, etc. it was very difficult for me to reach out a hand or offer a hug.  I admired people who were free with their affection, who were able to effortlessly touch someone with confidence and in a nurturing safe way, such as touching someone’s shoulder as you talk to them.

Massage Therapy training seemed to be a logical solution to the areas in my life that I was “stuck.”

In 2003 I quit my job and started looking into massage schools. I was drawn to Oregon School of Massage in Portland/Salem. I lived in Eugene but commuting to the right school seemed worthwhile. I ended up being wooed back to my employer before I even started the massage program, but I made arrangements to work part-time while I went to school.

Oregon School of massage was wonderful, but I almost walked out of orientation because of my touch anxiety. I remember the administrator talking about the program and how much touching was involved. He had us stand up and touch the arm of the person next to us, and give some brief massage-type touch. It reminded me of that dreaded moment in church when I would be forced to shake hands and greet the people around me. Absolutely terrifying! I would go through the motions, feel like I wanted to crawl out of my skin, dissociate from my body and emotionally shut down.

I knew I was going to have to face a lot more touching than that, but I was determined that massage school was the right choice for me for many reasons. I deeply wanted my life to change.

Massage school was fascinating. I learned so much about the body, how to care for myself better, and I very quickly got over my touch anxiety. I would look forward to a job that was healthier for me, with more movement, more peace and calm, and above all not at a desk.

Then, more life happened.

When I finished massage school I did not start my new career. I got a high-stress desk job in a competitive corporate environment. It was round two of life showing me what I didn’t want.

In 2009 I quit that job. I was overweight, had swelling feet, stomach problems, sleep problems, hormone problems, and anxiety. It was all due to stress and a sedentary lifestyle.

I started walking and I started to study massage therapy again. After two months walking on a treadmill I began running outside and feeling healthier. It was time to sit for my license exam and start a massage therapy practice.

I took a part-time job and was transparent with my employer about my desire to grow a massage practice. I found a wonderful room to rent downtown Eugene and it happens to be the same room I still practice in today. I was eventually able to transition to massage therapy full time.

What fascinates me, looking back, is that I didn’t get into massage because I was driven to help people. Pain was my great motivator. Overcoming anxiety and becoming comfortable in my own skin was my goal. I believe that my experiences helped me be a more compassionate therapist. I understand pain. I understand not taking care of yourself. I understand obligation, stress and being stuck.

I could write for days about all of the reasons I am so grateful that I chose massage therapy as a career. I have evolved so much with it. My life is richer for it in meaning, connection, and purpose.

I get to laugh a lot. I get to wake up every day excited to go to work. I get to be a witness to people growing, changing and feeling better. I get to help people and be of service.

Best of all, I am able to give hugs freely and they come from a place of joy. If you see me for a session, it’s highly likely you will get a hug. Unless that would cause you anxiety, in which case I totally get it, and would respectfully not engage in awkward hugging. I am also pretty good at smiles, high-fives, and winks these days.

Blog Post by Sara McRae, LMT
Photo by Photo by Drew Hays