Eric Stephenson tells us about maintaining mental health, overcoming adversity, finding motivation in non-negotiable routines, recognizing and reacting to defining moments, and the lasting power of social support.
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0:01:17.9 Darren Buford: Welcome to The ABMP Podcast. My name is Darren Buford. I'm Editor-in-Chief of Massage & Bodywork Magazine and Senior Director of Communications for ABMP.
0:01:26.3 KC: And I'm Kristin Coverly, ABMP's Director of Professional Education and a Licensed Massage Therapist.
0:01:31.6 DB: Kristin, tell our listeners about our special event.
0:01:35.6 KC: I'd love to. Listeners, I'm very excited to invite you to ABMP's movie night. Yes, movie night. On Tuesday, June 22nd, we're showing the documentary, Touched: A Massage Story. The documentary's director, Chandler Toffa, and its subject, ABMP member Jonathan Grassi, will join us for a live Q&A session after the movie screening. So this is gonna be really fun, and I hope you can join us. It's free for everyone in the profession, ABMP members and non-members. Heads up, the event is BYOP, bring your own popcorn. Learn more and reserve your seat at abmp.com/ce-socials.
0:02:14.2 DB: Our guest today is Eric Stephenson. Eric is a 20-year massage veteran and Chief Wellness Officer for Elements Massage. Eric is also a Co-Founder of imassage, Inc., an education and consulting company dedicated to extending the careers of massage therapists and spa practitioners through customized continuing education, focusing on preventing injury and workers' compensation claims. His experience as an entrepreneur, consultant and speaker in the wellness industry have taken him around the world. For more information, visit elementsmassage.com and imassageinc.com. Hello, Eric! Hello, Kristin!
0:02:52.5 Eric Stephenson: Hello, Darren, and hello, Kristin! Great to be here.
0:02:55.6 KC: Eric, thank you so much for coming back and being a repeat guest on The ABMP Podcast, we're so happy you're here. We'd love to talk with you today about any insights that you've learned or discovered during the pandemic because we can't ignore this conversation. It's really important for us to check in and see how everyone's doing. As more Americans are receiving the vaccine and things are starting to open up again, it seems like this is the perfect time to reflect on what we've learned from the experience, and how we've been changed by it. So I wanna ask you: What was your COVID experience like?
0:03:27.8 ES: Well first, I'd like to thank you and ABMP and everyone there for having me again, for all the listeners listening in today and spending their time with us. It feels very different sitting here than it did a short time ago, or maybe it was long, nine months ago, way back in September. So the first thing I would like to do before I answer your question directly is first to say hello to everyone out there and give a huge, and I mean a huge shoutout to everyone worldwide in the massage and spa profession for helping people manage incredible stress during this crazy, uncertain time that we have gone through, and they've done it with such grace. And it's really had massive impact. And I mentioned that on the last podcast that you had me on, and I really wanna say that again because we need to celebrate that and we need to remember that.
0:04:15.9 ES: And so I think for me, looking back on the pandemic, the word that comes up for me over and over again is "adversity", and that adversity looked like extreme difficulty and misfortune. And so many of us in the massage profession were affected directly, in the spa profession, that I also have a lot of colleagues in. The industry was really decimated for March and April of last year and overcoming adversity. And I think that that theme, for me, was what I've been reflecting on since last March.
0:04:52.8 ES: And it's interesting because I remember early in my career, before I even became a massage therapist, I was managing a café in New Orleans. So I was a musician working in a café, and there was a massage therapist that had her office right above the café. And I remember one day, she came down and I said to her, "You know, I'm thinking about being a massage therapist one day." And I swear she looked right at me and said, "You'll never succeed in this industry." And I was taken back and I said, "Well, what do you mean?" She goes, "Well, you're a man, and this is a woman's profession. You'll never succeed in massage." And I remember being really struck by that comment. And after the smoke came out of my ears and my nose, I looked at her and I politely said, "Well, you know, one day, you'll hear about me. I'll be successful."
0:05:39.0 ES: And so I think back on that now because various points in my career, I've experienced adversity. And I could have taken that event to heart and really been discouraged and think, "Oh, well, she's right. I won't succeed in this, I shouldn't go down that path," but it actually had the opposite effect for me. It actually motivated me, and it made me go down a path that actually took me about three years before I enrolled in massage school. But I knew in that moment that I could use that as a motivator, rather than a distractor. So I find myself in that position again now. I look back some mornings, I really feel like I'm suffering a lot of sadness and despair and uncertainty about the future. But then, I remember, "Oh, wait a minute, I get to choose how I frame this. I have agency over my life. We have agency over our life to make that decision 'cause I cannot let outside events affect me unless I let it." So I think adversity, for me, has been the biggest learning in how to deal with that in an effective and constructive way so that it moves me forward.
0:06:49.5 DB: We've had the luxury of speaking to a number of practitioners over the past year. And Kristin, I know you can recognize this: For many massage therapists, there's been defining moments when people have told them that they can't do this, they won't do well at it, they won't succeed. And it's been this moment where the light bulb, the switch went on, and they became more motivated than ever. So I love hearing that story, Eric. You just add to other practitioners, too.
0:07:17.0 ES: Yeah, and defining moment really is such a fantastic way to frame it up. And if anyone out there is listening and they are discouraged, hopefully, they can take hold of what we're saying and ask themselves the question: Is there a possible way to reframe this? Can I use this as a motivator? Could I look back on this and say, "This was a moment when I changed my mind about how I'm going to view people's external opinions or events or circumstances and turn it my way?"
0:07:46.6 DB: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors.
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0:09:03.9 DB: Now, let's get back to the podcast.
0:09:06.2 DB: Eric, people were challenged in so many ways during the pandemic. How did you maintain your own mental health through this?
0:09:12.8 ES: Well, I drank a lot of coffee and ate a lot of tacos; that helped a lot. But in all honesty, it was very, very strange for me at the beginning of the pandemic. As someone who was traveling the majority of the year, always on the go, always in airplanes, always in hotels, always teaching workshops or out on the road somewhere, to all of a sudden be at a standstill. And so to be at that standstill and really ask myself, "How am I gonna deal with this?" Because I can't distract myself. I can't move, I don't have any freedom to do what I normally would do. So one of the ways that I really found was necessary to take care of my mental health and sort of preserve my sanity was to get in community fast.
0:10:00.5 ES: So I think I mentioned on the last podcast that I was living alone for the first two months of the pandemic like probably, again, many listeners were. And after about two months, I really noticed that the effects of isolation were setting in, so I asked myself, "What's within my control here?" And I literally packed up my belongings and left the home that I was living in and went to pandemic with friends in Pennsylvania. I knew the importance of social support. I knew that I was an extrovert. I knew that I was gonna end up suffering, and I knew at the time that this was not going to end any time soon. So I packed everything up and I went for social support. I found such support and love from my group of friends, and I found a place where I could feel healthy. And I think that that social support for me was probably the biggest piece of it.
0:10:54.0 ES: I will say that I started following some neuroscientists very closely, and I'll probably talk a lot about that today because one of the things that really helped me during the pandemic was to figure out that if I was going to work with my brain, I needed to learn how my brain worked. And there was a lot of great tools out there during the pandemic because, of course, so many experts took to Instagram and Facebook and social media channels to share some of these. So I started following a couple of neuroscientists, and that really helped me to understand what was happening with the stress response, what was happening in my brain, and then some effective strategies that I really could employ to help.
0:11:34.7 KC: Eric, what tips do you have for massage therapists who may just be coming to terms or gaining awareness of how the pandemic may have impacted their own mental health?
0:11:43.2 ES: That's a great question 'cause I think that those waves of awareness come in at various times, and you may think you're doing fine, and then all of a sudden, one day, you experience a setback. So healing is never a trajectory straight up. We know that it goes up and down. We see that every day with our clients, as well. But I have two main tips, and again, just to sort of go back to keeping it real and keeping it within some strategies that you can immediately employ.
0:12:10.9 ES: I follow Dr. Andrew Huberman, and he's a neuroscientist. So he talks a lot about this technique called the physiological sigh. And I'd like to actually do that with you both and with the listeners here because it's so simple and it's so effective, but it's grounded in evidence-based research. And so what it is is if you find yourself in a stress response or you're really finding yourself in a place where, "Wow! My thinking isn't right," or, "I'm feeling some anxiety," you can do this physiological sigh, and it's actually hardwired into the neurons of your brain. So it sort of goes like this: You take a big inhalation, and then you take another inhalation, and then a big exhalation. So let's try that again. You take a big inhalation, and another inhalation, and then a big exhalation. And you wanna make sure that exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation.
0:13:05.0 ES: So what this really does is it downregulates your autonomic nervous system, and it sends a signal to your amygdala to quiet down. And it takes somewhere between probably 45 to 60 seconds, if I understand his reasoning behind it, but it puts you into a state of calm. And this is important because if you're trying to downregulate your nervous system and get out of that fight or flight, many times will people say, "Well, you can do yoga and you can do meditation." Well, that's, of course, true, but you can't do that in the moment when someone's standing in front of you, or you're in traffic and you're stressed out, so I love the physiological sigh.
0:13:42.0 ES: The other thing that I really like about sort of downregulating, and some tips that I would give the therapists out there is this concept of quieting yourself and meditating. And right before the pandemic started, I had hit a wall and knew that I needed to make meditation a real part of my life. And I think I had been fooling myself a little bit, I'd been meditating here and there, but it wasn't a non-negotiable practice. So meditation really became a non-negotiable practice.
0:14:11.9 ES: And there is a fabulous neuroscientist, his name's Dr. Jud Brewer. And maybe we can include some of these in the show notes, too, for reference for your listeners. But he talks about meditation. He's done extensive research on what happens in your brain when you simply just quiet yourself and get curious. And his methodology of just quieting yourself and becoming curious about the sensations in your body, the sensations in the room, he's actually shown that it quiets down the part of your brain that ruminates, that causes anxiety.
0:14:44.0 ES: And there's a really great clip demonstrating this in real-time from a past 60 Minutes episode where he hooks Anderson Cooper from CNN up to some electrodes, and he shows what happens when Anderson thinks about stress in his life. You can see the part of his brain called the posterior cingulate light up. And then you can see what happens in the brain when he guides him into quieting and becoming curious. And immediately, there's a drop, and the activity in the posterior cingulate just drops down. So I've found that making meditation meditation simple has really been the key to me having a practice and making it be a non-negotiable. So the physiological sigh and this approach to meditation. Dr. Brewer has a wonderful app called Unwinding Anxiety that you can subscribe to, as well, which are fabulous tools.
0:15:39.0 KC: Eric, I love that term, "non-negotiable practice." And I also love that you made meditation simple so that it would fit into your life. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means? How did you make it simple? A lot of times, people feel like it's this big undertaking they have to embark on, that has to take a lot of time or a lot of effort. But how did you make it simple so it fit into your life on a regular basis?
0:16:00.7 ES: Yeah, so one of the benefits of the pandemic was that I had a routine schedule. And so I had complete control over my schedule for the first time in a long time, meaning that I was in one location, and days looked pretty similar. And so what I did right away was I figured out what the optimal time of day would be for myself. And I also challenged myself a little bit. So in the past, with my love of coffee, the first thing I would do upon waking is say, "Oh, the reward is to get out of bed and get the coffee." And so I knew that in the morning probably would be the best time for me to schedule that time, it was when I was the calmest, the quietest. But I also knew that there was gonna be a little bit of an edge there in terms of making myself wait for the rewards.
0:16:49.5 ES: So I actually started with just... I believe I started with maybe two minutes. And then organically added, and systematically added minutes on as the days and the weeks went past, until I got up until probably by mid-summer of last year, I was up to 20 minutes a day. And I was finding that, "Oh, wow! The 20 minutes is going by fast. I want a little bit more, let's add one more minute." So it became a morning ritual and a non-negotiable because I almost viewed it as the salve and the medication that I was taking to offset my anxiety, and the momentum just grew from there.
0:17:26.0 DB: Eric, I love "non-negotiable," exactly what Kristin mentioned. I actually do something similar. In fact, I wrote my editor's note about this in the upcoming issue of Massage & Bodywork Magazine, which is about self-care, so I hope people really check this out when it comes out. But I have a morning routine that is non-negotiable, and it begins with the dogs go for a short walk, immediate meditation. And you're right, I haven't altered that. And even on those days when you don't feel like doing it, I have never not felt better after those 10 minutes. So I totally recognize where you're coming from. And just making that a standard part of what I'm doing has been game-changing for me. And you're right, the delay of the coffee, too. [chuckle]
0:18:14.0 ES: Yeah, well, the dogs will definitely hold you accountable, so you've got a team there of people and social support. But the other thing I wanna mention about non-negotiables, and I'm finding this in this moment, is I cannot be rigid with when this happens because what is happening now is life is coming back in, in technicolor, in full force. And so I need to be compassionate with myself and say, "Okay, if I don't get to it in the morning, I'm still going to get to it in another part of my day." It can be non-negotiable, but I don't have to be tied to doing it first thing in the morning. And I'm finding that allowing myself a little bit of leeway there is definitely better for my mental health, and it's definitely better for taking the pressure off of a certain time of day that it needs to happen.
0:19:02.0 DB: Another thing that you mentioned, Eric, was I just found the phrase really powerful, "Waves of awareness." When everything shut down in our own offices at ABMP, we immediately went into overdrive, hyper-drive because we wanted to prepare materials for our members, so because of that, we immediately ramped up even more so our work behaviors, so I didn't have that feeling for a while until like you mentioned, I had a wall, and that was probably not for six months when our work behaviors started to dial back down to more "normal" again. That was tough, and I think that I was fooling myself a lot of the time during this as well...
0:19:50.3 ES: Yeah. Well, that's like a really honest assessment, Darren, and one of the things that is true for all of us is our experience of the last 12 to 16 months was so different. People had to do fire fighting at the beginning, and people had to do firefighting in the middle and people had to do firefighting at the end, and people are still doing firefighting, so it's like how do we keep ourselves balanced even in the midst of that surging part of necessity, and when you put fear with uncertainty, you get anxiety, and we had a lot of fear, and we had a lot of uncertainty and it really resulted in that anxiety because we had no idea, not only when our workload was going to end or lighten up, we had no idea of literally when the pandemic was going to end either. And you could argue that it still isn't ended, so we're still in that place of uncertainty, but hopefully the anxiety level is diminishing because now we have at least a little bit more of a clear timeline.
0:20:52.5 DB: So, Eric, much of your work involves traveling and teaching and interacting with massage therapists, and clearly, you weren't able to do that during the pandemic, but you did take advantage and you enrolled in a new certification program. Can you tell us about that?
0:21:06.1 ES: Yeah, well, thanks for asking. Actually, I took some time over the pandemic to think about what my next evolution in the wellness industry is going to be, and over the years, I've definitely noticed the progression in the greater massage, spa, wellness industry towards prevention when it comes to health and not just managing health conditions, and I see this in massage where people are using prevention, getting massage twice a month or once a month to avoid getting into disease and discomfort, so I noticed that, and I had a friend that finished the Duke Integrative Health and Wellness Coaching Program, so I became very interested in that, and then the pandemic afforded me the opportunity to think about advancing my professional development and adding to my tool bag. So yes, I've just finished up the Duke Integrative Health and Wellness Coaching Program, and it's amazing how similar a lot of the approach is to being a massage therapist and the skills that I've honed and developed over the last 20 years.
0:22:12.3 KC: I think, Eric, you referred to it when we were talking as the never-ending health intake, is that right?
0:22:16.8 ES: It's true, when I first started the health coaching program, I thought, well, I'm going to become an expert in exercise, and I'll become an expert in nutrition, and I'll be an expert in how to help people with their stress, and what I'm finding really is that the health coaching paradigm is really all set up around presencing. Truly being present with someone and then truly listening. So I know the difference between self-focused listening, which is basically thinking about what I'm going to say while another person is talking and other focused listening, but this program really has helped me deepen into this sense of being present with another person and being able to truly listen to them and then mirror that back so that I can become a guide and an expert in the science of change and getting them to where they wanna be rather than trying to get give them opinions, because at the end of the day, all their answers are inside of them, and it all comes back to their vision and their values of where they wanna be in their health, and so it is very similar to the intake and massage, it's very similar to being present with someone, being able to listen truly to their need and what they're saying, and then work with them to get them to a place that they wanna be.
0:23:37.5 KC: Eric, everything you're saying, I am completely resonating with, and I would love to bring that into my own practice, and I am absolutely sure that our massage and body work listeners are feeling the same. How do you think you'll blend this new health and wellness coaching certification with your own massage and bodywork practice and trainings?
0:23:56.9 ES: Great question, and one that I'm literally thinking about in the moment, this is something that I've thought about for a long time. Most of my focus for the last 20 years has been training massage therapists, working with massage therapists, working with clinic owners, working with studio owners, working with large spas that have hundreds of therapists on their staff, consulting with large wellness entities, and so I really have a desire to work with the general public now and to bring that awareness that I've incubated in massage specifically, in wellness, and now bring that out into the general public and really teach people ultimately how to work with stress and anxiety by down-regulating their nervous system and leading more drama free lives.
0:24:47.9 ES: I see the amount of suffering that people have in their personal and professional life, and I've learned so many wellness gems from teachers and from therapists, and from really great mentors over the years. And I feel like that has served me well. And the people that I've served well within the community of the massage industry, but now I wanna bring that out into mainstream and teach workshops about health and wellness that really speak to everything that I've learned in the industry, and now share that with a larger audience.
0:25:21.4 DB: Speaking of teaching, we know that you're back on the road and teaching again, what's it like to be back and working in a hands-on classroom?
0:25:28.7 ES: Yeah, so it is true, I'm back on the road, and as a musician, it's been interesting following some of my artists and bands that I love on social media because they've been literally sequestered for the last 15 months unable to perform, so I know that some of them are back out doing it, and at the end of the day, I did teach a workshop for the first time, a few weeks ago, and I'll admit the first 20 minutes, I asked for a lot of compassion from the audience, and I knew that I needed some WD-40 to get the squeaky wheels clean, but honestly, within 10 minutes, just feeding off the synergy of the group and having a relaxed atmosphere and knowing that we were all in it together, it just came back instantaneously, and it made me remember that I never want to take for granted, what an honor it is to go out and teach therapists and what an honor it is to touch them so they can literally go out and touch thousands, if not tens of thousands of people over the course of their career. So in many ways, it was like riding a bike again, after a few pedals, I was on my way.
0:26:39.7 DB: What are the Elements Massage studio owners and some of the other clients you work with, asking you to teach right now?
0:26:44.6 ES: At first, a lot of it really centered on, my teams are getting back up to strength, and I'd love for you to come in and teach them some of the foundational concepts that I've really built my whole brand around, which is being present with other human beings, being present with yourself, using really good body mechanics and ergonomics so that you're not hurting yourself or the person underneath your hands. Coming back to this idea of professionalism and how important it is to make sure that all of the soft skills are there as well as your techniques, because those are as important, if not more important in terms of the therapeutic outcomes that you're gonna get from your massage.
0:27:26.2 ES: So a lot of the requests have been around getting teams back up to strength, especially those that haven't been doing, say, 15 or 20 massages for the past six months, it's amazing how fast your strength can dissipate. And then the other big part of it too is of course the mental health piece, and I really put a lot of this research and a lot of this evidence-based stuff that I've learned in terms of strategy and neuroscience and understanding the brain into my workshops so that at the end of the day, therapists can use their critical thinking skills and really combine that into their approach of giving really high quality massage and bodywork.
0:28:07.5 KC: Kind of like a re-entry 101, almost uncovering all the physical and emotional aspects that we need to strengthen to bring ourselves back up to speed, right?
0:28:16.1 ES: That's exactly right. And it's really a celebration. I mean, it's a celebration in getting out there and saying, "Look, we need to look back and celebrate what we've just come through." I mean, if you remember early on, we didn't even know if massage was going to exist in the world, and so to look back and say, "Yes, since the late spring of last year, we've been able to practice massage safely and effectively following guidelines, following enhanced safety and sanitation protocols. We made that happen. And we need to celebrate that." So it's super cool.
0:28:49.1 ES: At Elements Massage, this summer we're doing a summer celebration, so we're gonna recognize all the brand's massage therapists, and we're gonna actually give away $25,000 worth of prizes and have appreciation events all summer long, and so this is just a concrete way of saying, "Thank you, we appreciate you. We know all the work that you've done." And that goes to the whole team, the owners, the managers, the whole entire team that is in an Elements studio, and we're gonna give away $10,000 to a grand prize winner at the end of the summer, which is really super exciting. So appreciation is a big hallmark too.
0:29:26.9 KC: I love that. Speaking of appreciation, we appreciate everything you've already shared with us and our podcast listeners today, but I wanna give you space to share a final thought with our massage and bodywork community. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with today?
0:29:42.8 ES: Yeah, I think I'd really like to leave us with the fact that we have to think about this past year in sort of a mosaic, so literally this mosaic in my life, being a 52-year-old man is a small percentage of my life, 2% or maybe a little bit more than that, but it's really up to me to figure out what sort of impact this past year is going to have and how I'm going to frame it up going forward and make it part of the mosaic to of the next stage in my life. So I think that social support going forward is so, so crucial, it's the idea that the single biggest predictor of our happiness according to Shawn Achor from Harvard is our social support network. So it's like, how do we tap into that now after being absent from that in so many ways over the last year? And then how do we really go out into the world now in a world where people are starving for touch, for connection, for clarity, and ultimately for kindness? And remember that we make over 600 decisions every single day, and probably the most important one we can make is to be kind.
0:30:49.6 DB: That is a beautiful sentiment in the podcast today. I wanna thank our guest, Eric Stevenson. To find out more information about Elements Massage, visit elementsmassage.com, and to find out more information about Eric visit imassageinc.com, that's imassage I-N-C.com. Listeners if you like what you're hearing on the ABMP podcast, leave us a review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, and wherever you listen, you'll help us reach more people in the massage and bodywork community. Thanks Eric and thanks Kristin.
0:31:20.9 KC: Eric, thank you for everything you shared with us today, we appreciate it.
0:31:25.3 ES: It's my pleasure. And thanks everyone for listening out there and keep up the great work.
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