There’s a lot of talk about what a spa vacation can do for your body. A vampire facial will make your skin glow. A seaweed body wrap sloughs off toxins and zaps cellulite. And a hot stone massage will make your body completely forget those box jumps you did at Crossfit last week.
But what could a spa vacation do for you mentally? For most spa vacations, the body is the focus. But I took a spa vacation and I can attest that it did far more for my mind than it ever did for my body.
It started like this: My best friend called to tell me that her husband had a work trip in Miami, and asked me if I would join her to make a spa vacation out of it. As a mother of two young children who are incredibly needy and also heavy, my body needed it. My postpartum skin was a perfect “before” photo for acne and fine line advertisements. But more than that, I needed a mental break. And not just for an hour or two at my local day spa. I needed a break or I was going to break.
We arrived, and after settling in went to our first treatments. Mine was an “Arctic Berry Collagen Facial.” I did not know what that was – it was what the aesthetician who did my evaluation recommended. But it turns out, it was code for lying in a cool room while a woman rubbed “organic enzymes” from arctic berries on my face. The facial itself felt great. The steam, the massage, the cool pulp lifted from my skin with a warm cloth. But the actual experience — not so great. I found my mind racing. How were the kids doing? Was the baby napping? How many work emails had I missed since being here? I actually wished I had brought my earbuds so I could listen to a podcast while she worked because this silence felt like a waste of time.
“You have tension in your jaw,” the aesthetician said, waking me from my anxiety dream.
“Oh,” I remember saying. Duh, I remember thinking.
“Relax,” she told me. “Just let yourself be present here.”
So I tried. But the facial was only 60 minutes, so shortly thereafter I found myself in the locker room of the spa with the heavy plastic sandals they loaned me and a white cotton robe.
“Amazing, right?” My kid-less friend asked. She is the social director for a center for the blind. Every day she does activities with them like riding bikes and rock climbing. She works out every day. She probably even eats balanced meals instead of shoveling her daughter’s leftovers in over the sink. Her skin seemed to glow.
“Yeah,” I lied. I looked in the mirror and thought, damn I look tired.
We swam for a bit and ate a “light lunch” (read: I really wanted a burger) of lettuce wraps and cucumber water and by the time I went in for my next treatment (a Crystal Chakra Reflexology massage) I felt skeptical, albeit lighter than I had for the facial.
I was led into a dimly lit room by a woman old enough to be my grandmother. She then placed crystals — literal crystals — around and on top of my body to “realign my energy and create emotional calm.” Next, she performed some kind of wizardry foot massage while a stereo played music that sounded like a flute being played on the beach.
This is so weird, I thought initially. But, as time went on, I began to feel my limbs loosening, my shoulders falling. She occasionally told me things like, “You’re holding harmful energy. Allow yourself to let it go.”
I began to think about the “harmful energy” I harbored as she continued. My frustrations with my husband’s long work hours. The shame I felt for the anger I felt towards my baby when she woke up, yet again, in the night. The grief I still harbored from a decade-old loss that I let sit inside me — quiet, but ever-present.
Suddenly I felt the music shift and the woman whispered, “Thank you for allowing me to participate in your healing.”
That evening I slept better than I had in months. My body sank into the sheets, even though I had technically been “relaxing” all day. My anxiety, which usually peaked right before bed was gone.
It turns out, that reflexology has been clinically proven to help with anxiety. Not the crystals, necessarily, but a 2017 study looked at the effects of reflexology and relaxation in women with MS. The results showed a “significant reduction in the severity of anxiety, stress, and depression during the different times in the reflexology and relaxation groups as compared with the control group.” As someone who had just crossed over from the control group to the reflexology group, I can attest that it worked. It wasn’t just a physical release. It was mental.
And massage too has been shown to do more than just relax your muscles. A 2016 study conducted by Emory University found that massage therapy provides significant improvement to individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The researchers suggest that massage could be an effective treatment alternative for anxiety and depression symptoms.
The next morning I attended a sunrise yoga class, gratitude coursing through me as I moved from one pose to the next. The spa food at breakfast seemed to be enough today — the fruit salad and honey yogurt exactly what my body craved.
After a walk with my friend, a swim, and a nap, my day ended with a warm oil massage. I laid down, anticipating my usual mind purge, the barrage of to-do’s and anxieties that usually accompanied any moment of quiet in my life.
But instead, I felt peace. Gratitude for this experience. A connection to my body, each movement by the masseuse a welcome one. I thought about why I was constantly exhausted in my daily life — trying to be everything, all the time for everyone. Yet, here I was, and there they were, and everything was fine. I, was fine. For the first time in a long time.
I found myself in the locker room once again, my friend sitting on the bench waiting for me.
“Amazing, right?” I heard myself say.
“Yes,” she replied this time. “Amazing.”
Have you had a life-changing spa experience? Tell us about it in the comments.