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Uncharted: A long time coming: The power of massage

BREEZY POINT--The career path I've chosen is notorious for leading to burnout. Working as a journalist can undeniably be high stress--the daily deadline pressure, strange hours, both experiencing and reporting on traumatic and sometimes disturbin...

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Just one deep-tissue Swedish massage has been shown to reduce hormones with negative effects on the body, including arginine vasopressin and cortisol, according to one study. Photo Illustration

BREEZY POINT-The career path I've chosen is notorious for leading to burnout.

Working as a journalist can undeniably be high stress-the daily deadline pressure, strange hours, both experiencing and reporting on traumatic and sometimes disturbing circumstances, and trying (and sometimes failing) to ignore a near-constant stream of negative feedback generously applied by those critical of the media.

Last year, a study of 40 journalists by neuroscientist Tara Swart showed they had difficulty managing emotions and the executive functions of their brains tended to operate on a "lower level"-which Swart attributed to dehydration and self-medication with alcohol, caffeine and high-sugar foods. I'll admit I don't always eat or drink water when I should, and coffee is a frequent companion of mine. I take my work home with me sometimes.

Which is why getting a massage has, for some time, been an appealing prospect to me. There isn't a whole lot that's considered more quintessentially relaxing than a massage, and yet, I've never had one. I mean, not a real one, anyway. My hang-up has always been based on cost. I'm a thrifty person (somewhat by necessity-see aforementioned career path) and a massage, or any kind of spa service, has always seemed like a luxury I couldn't afford.

Last year, however, I won the grand prize drawing at the Brainerd Dispatch/Echo Publishing holiday party-a hefty gift card to Breezy Point Resort I could use anywhere on the property. That included the on-site Serenity Spa, which is where I found myself Tuesday morning about to receive my first massage.

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After a brief orientation from aesthetician Cassondra Cooper, I undressed and climbed onto the warm massage table in a dimly lit room with soft music playing. It was exactly as I'd pictured it. I'd selected a one-hour Swedish massage and was determined to reach a meditative state as soon as possible while Cooper placed hot towels on my back and began rubbing my legs.

Although I've meditated before, I found it difficult to not think at first-about writing this column, whether to call my dad to meet him for lunch, what I needed to get done at work that afternoon and also about trying to meditate.

Cooper checked in with me a couple times to ensure the pressure she applied worked for me, but was otherwise unobtrusive. About halfway through, I managed to calm my mind enough to focus on the massage alone. The tension in my shoulders released, and I concentrated on how my muscles felt with each touch, the scent and feel of the massage oil and the hot towels encapsulating my feet. And it was awesome. The next half-hour slipped by much faster than it should have, and before I was ready for it to end, my first massage was over.

Although I was often met with incredulity when I told others I'd never before received a massage, Serenity Spa director Ryan Super-Peterson said first-timers are "pretty common," averaging a few a week. The first time the nearly 20-year veteran of the industry got a massage himself was while he was attending schooling to become a massage therapist, and he hasn't stopped since. Super-Peterson said massage therapists get tense and tired themselves while massaging others, and he tries to get one at least once a month. The benefit most clients cite is stress relief, he said.

"Especially this day and age, that's why most people come in, because life is stressful," Super-Peterson said. "They just want to come in and zone out for an hour. ... Stress isn't something you can really put your finger on, but we all know it's there."

Scientific research bears out the stress relief component of massages. A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found just one deep-tissue massage had a measurable impact on hormones with negative impacts on the body-arginine vasopressin, or AVP, and cortisol-while boosting immunity. According to a TIME Magazine column on the study, AVP raises blood pressure and constricts blood vessels. Cortisol is released when people are stressed, and in consistent doses can actually alter brain chemistry, "strengthening connections in the parts of the brain that are associated with fear, arousal and emotional regulation at the cost of other parts of the brain associated with learning and memory," the Minnesota Department of Health reported.

If you ask Missy Lake, my first massage should have actually been 31 years ago. Lake is the prenatal education and lactation services coordinator at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. She advocates for infant massage in a weekly support group for mothers and babies, demonstrating techniques and explaining the benefits.

"There really is no right or wrong, like massaging an arm or a hand versus the belly," Lake said. "I think the U.S. lags (in practicing infant massage). Other cultures have done it for years."

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Lake said some benefits for babies are similar to those found in adults: improved circulation, stress reduction and relaxation. This in turn can help with digestion, relieve gas or constipation and improve sleep. Lake said one study showed massage was linked to reduced time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit for babies born prematurely. For mothers or fathers, Lake said the act of massage can deepen one's bond with their child, and improved sleep for baby means improved sleep for the parents, too.

It's never too early to start, Lake said-infant massages can begin right after birth. If parents want to use massage oil, Lake said to ensure it's edible, since babies tend to put their hands or feet in their mouths. A plain vegetable oil is a good option.

What would Lake's message be for other first-timers like me?

"Continue to get them," she said. "I'm a big fan of massage."

What else did I do for the first time in February?

• Participated in an ice fishing contest. Although I went ice fishing with my dad growing up, I can't remember the last time I trekked out to take part in one of the most Minnesotan of activities. I still can't. I didn't exactly accomplish much in the way of fishing while attending Fishing for Ducks on Mille Lacs Lake. Bloody Marys and meeting new people kept my rapt attention, while by the end of the contest, my bobber was frozen into a newly formed sheet of ice.

For many-and for me, apparently-fishing isn't really the goal of those kinds of events. I had a blast with my friends, made new ones and felt part of a temporary 5,000-person community bonding over a cultural event. And shots called Duck Farts.

• Read to first-graders at Garfield Elementary School. Along with other reporters at the Brainerd Dispatch, I was invited to be a guest reader as part of I Love to Read Month. The students of Mrs. Hall's first-grade class at Garfield heard me read "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," by Mo Willems, and "Buddy's Adventures: Lost Bone" by Michael Perkins. Knuffle Bunny, it turns out, is a well-known celebrity among the 6-year-old crowd. Perkins is a Nisswa-based author, and the kids thought it was pretty cool to read a book by someone from the area.

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I do love to read-it's what fueled my love to write-and was happy to share that passion with Garfield Elementary.

• Tried on a wedding dress. I was planning to tell you I'm embarrassed by this one, but I'm not, really. I accompanied my good friend Mandi Churchill to Little Falls, where she tried on a number of beautiful dresses for her summer wedding (she said yes to her dress!). In the past, I might have let the fact that I'm single make me feel ashamed to try on a stunning $2,500 dress I don't plan to wear anytime soon. But you know what? Ain't nobody got time for that. And I felt damn good in it, too.

Opinion by Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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