What to do when your client won’t relax

It’s common to hear massage therapists ask the question, “What should I do when my client just won’t relax? She keeps her eyes open and stays stiff through the whole massage!”

My short answers are usually a combination of the following:

  • Get over it.
  • Stop trying to get her to relax.
  • Let it go. The massage is not about you.

But massage isn’t that black and white. There are many factors to consider and the answer will vary from client to client (and therapist to therapist), so here are the long answers.

It’s important to clarify what we’re talking about. Are you expecting the client will fall into that almost-sleeping state of mellow? This refers to the client’s mind, and how/if it slows down (often bringing the body along with it).

Are you looking for the client to go limp when you are moving arms and legs around, or perhaps not ‘stiffen up’ muscles while you work on them? This is about the client’s ability to relax their muscles.

These are very different sentiments. And to make it even more confusing, who’s to say that what you think of as relaxed is what the client’s mind and body displays as relaxation? Every body (and mind) is different. Even though there’s considerable overlap in relaxation of the mind and the body, I’m going to tackle each separately.

The Mind

Is the client there to relax?

Oftentimes we make the incorrect assumption that a massage must be relaxing. This is simply not the truth. Obviously, we wouldn’t want an athlete to fall into a droopy stupor 10 minutes before the big game. We don’t want to send a desk jockey back to their cubicle unable to function after a 15 minute chair massage. But not all standard on-the-table massage needs to be relaxing, either.

A client coming in for regular plantar faciitis treatment or with a nasty QL spasm probably has no interest in a nap. They want the pain gone and that trumps any other benefit of massage. Some clients just want an hour to themselves and a massage appointment is an excuse to shut off the phone and ignore the world.

To answer this question, you’ll need to ask the client. This may seem a little awkward, especially if you’ve been treating them for awhile and aren’t sure how to broach the topic. Here’s one of my favorite scripts to initiate that conversation, typically during the intake process before each treatment.

“I want to check in to be sure you’re getting the results you want from massage, or if we need to make some changes to you treatments. So, do you feel like we’re making a difference with that plantar faciitis? Is there anything else nagging that we should address?”

Discuss their answers, and decide if you wish to add, “Do you feel like you’re getting a relaxation benefit here? It’s certainly not necessary that you feel mellow when you leave here, but I want to be sure you’re getting the results you want.”

The way you phrase these questions may be entirely different, but this script can serve as a starting point.

Bottom line: if the client is not interested in relaxation and is otherwise happy with the massage, the issue is yours. Stop harping on it and move along. If the client does want to experience a little more of the relaxation aspect standby, we’re going to cover that in a minute.

What if the client isn’t there to relax, but you feel it would be beneficial to their progress?
Let’s be sure that’s not your ego talking. Take a moment to be certain you are not imposing your idea of a massage or your idea of relaxation onto the client. Sure, it’s fair to say that physiological relaxation is generally good for the body. But that’s really big picture stuff. In reality, 30 minutes of semi-consciousness once a month isn’t going to make that much of an impact on the improvement of their carpal tunnel. The soft tissue work is.

If you still feel strongly that zoning out will help the client achieve their goals, you’ll need to express that. Here’s a script:

“I want to make sure you’re getting the full benefit of massage, and some of that involves really deep relaxation during your treatment. So I’m going to suggest that we don’t talk at all today, and instead, you try to let your mind go blank, or maybe think of your happy place.”

In reality, this could be the worst script ever and I wouldn’t know. I’ve never actually used it, because I’ve never felt strongly about this. (One exception: with a teenaged Aspergers client when I just say, “Dude. Let’s do part of this massage totally silent so you can really chill out. I promise we’ll talk about superheros after the massage.”  This script probably won’t fit your situation.) You’ll need to adjust to fit your needs. If the client is game, awesome. If the client is not interested, get over it.

Now that you’ve decided you need to encourage a little more relaxation during the massage and the client is on board, how exactly do you do that?

Clean your office
This sounds silly, but it’s something we often overlook. If a client is putting her rings on a dusty shelf or looking at oil stains on the carpet, she may find it hard to relax on the hopefully-clean sheets. Turn all the lights on and clean your space well and often.

Shut out noise
This is also a no-brainer. Run a fan or an air cleaner for white noise and place near the source of the noise (usually a door or window). That’s it. A little goes a long way here.

Ask about the background music
It could be that the client cannot stand your Mozart for Massage or your chime-y nature noises but has been too shy to say anything. Have a few options on hand and start asking clients what they want. Try saying, “I’ve got some new music on the iPod, are you feeling like mellow piano or oceans and chimes today?” Let the client choose and see if that changes the tone of the session.

Give some instruction on what the client should be doing/thinking during the massage
If you’ve got any training in breathing or meditation techniques, now is the time to show off your smarts. If you don’t have any training and this is important to you, get some.

What not to say

  • Relax.
  • Calm down.
  • Breathe.

Personally, I think telling someone to ‘breathe’ is 87 kinds of pretentious and reeks of self-righteousness. My friend Tracy said, “I don't instruct people to breathe. I'm not against it entirely, I just don't like when I'm told repeatedly how to breathe. I'm alive. I think I breathe ok.” I agree with Tracy.

All of these sentiments can be expressed much better in a full sentence that buffers the direct order. Be creative, gentle, and avoid sounding bossy.

The Body

The Tenser
Some people naturally tense their arm (or neck, or toe) when you start to massage that area. It’s often tough to know if the client is feeling pain, is ticklish, or if this is just their natural reaction to touch on any particular area of the body. If this is interfering with the efficacy of the massage, it needs to be addressed.
When this happens, ask the client what’s up. You know their body tensed up. They know it. Just ask, “Is this too much pressure? Or does it tickle?” Move forward according to their answer. In the event they just need to learn how to not tense up I usually say, “It takes some practice to learn how to go limp. Try this: take a deep breath in, and when you exhale think about letting your whole body sink into the table and be floppy.” And maybe I’ll shake or rock the area a little to help them loosen up.

My friend Megan pointed out, “”We tend not to think of receiving massage as a skill, but with practice it does get so much easier to just be heavy on the table.”

The Helper
Once again, we need to determine if a situation even demands a change. So, does it really matter if the client is helping to lift their leg? No, really. I’m asking. We’re taught to take the weight of the limb, or head, etc. But that doesn’t mean we have to, every single time.
If the client helps you move his leg, but once he’s adjusted the muscles stop contracting, that’s just fine. Nothing to see here, move along. This is your issue, not the client’s, and his ‘helping’ is probably not influencing the benefits of massage either way. If it really bugs you and you simply must address it, try saying, “You can let your whole leg stay floppy and I’ll do all the work.”

Sometimes it really does matter. If we’re trying to do some passive motion with the shoulder and the client is bracing the whole arm, our work, and the benefits of massage, are being roadblocked.

In this situation there are all sorts of cues to encourage a client to relax the body and let you bear the weight of a limb.  My favorite is a gentle shake while saying, “Let your whole arm drop, I’ve got you.” If they can’t seem to let it go, I do what I can and move on.

So, what do you do when your client won’t relax?

Decide if it really matters. Then let it go or try a few of these scripts and tricks accordingly.

What are your usual scripts? How do you help clients to relax? Share on the comments!