Designing Your Environment to Promote a Relaxation Habit

Something I love to see is when return clients of mine walk into my treatment room, plop their stuff and themselves into the chair, and immediately begin to show obvious signs of relaxation– they slouch a bit back comfortably into the chair, shoulders drop away from the ears an inch or so, and often there is an audible exhale. It’s that awesome letting go feeling, and it is observable. I love this because it tells me you’re now associating this space, my treatment room, with relaxation and relief, and that your nervous system has received the message that it is safe here. This, quite frankly, does half the work for us in getting your muscles to relax! Sometimes people get embarrassed because they always fall asleep on the massage table, but often times it is one of the only times you’ve been actually able to fully let go.

There are likely several factors at play that make the space immediately relaxing; there’s the fact that the last time you were here you (hopefully) got an amazing massage and have the memory that afterward you felt great, and there’s likely some self-appreciation in having had the great foresight to set aside some time just for yourself, a pause button pressed on the normal daily stressors. But there is also another factor at work, and that is the design of the environment. My hope is that sharing some of what I do to create the relaxing environment in the treatment room will inspire you to think about what you can do to your home environment to induce similarly immediate relaxation responses.

In his excellent book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear breaks down clear guidelines for how to make new habits, or behaviors, stick. The key is to have cues in your environment that remind you to do the desired action, and make it practically effortless to do so. For instance, if you want to drink more water throughout the day, he proposes filling a few water bottles in the morning and placing them in common areas around your house. That way, you’re regularly reminded of your desired habit when you see the bottles, and it is easier for you to achieve the desired behavior because you don’t have to go to the kitchen every time you want water.

Now, if you think about your whole environment, there are many different, sometimes competing cues in one space. The bedroom is a place where we sleep, but it is also where many people watch television, read the news or browse social media, check in on work emails, etc. When you walk into a bedroom with a work laptop open, and a phone with notifications lighting up at you, and a TV remote left on the bed from the day before, it can be pretty tempting to do anything but sleep! If you’ve lived in New England, or anywhere else where weather storms can cause temporary power outages, you might be able to relate to that feeling when the power goes out during a winter storm, and it’s dark, and there’s that stunning silence as your electronics all power down and you look around and think, well, I guess I’ll take a nap, or read a book, since there’s literally nothing else to do. It may seem like I’m getting off on a bit of a tangent here, but the point is that if we’re looking to establish a certain set of behaviors, the difference between success and failure can be in the cues and collective context that these cues create in our environment. If your spaces are filled with the brim with conflicting cues about what activities should happen there, it’s no wonder that relaxation, concentration, and sleep can be hard to achieve.

Back to the massage treatment room. I think this space is so immediately relaxing because it has a singular purpose: relaxation and feeling better. That’s it! There aren’t loose papers hanging around, there isn’t a television to watch, and you can’t see a pile of laundry to be done. It’s as if the power has gone out but you know it is coming back on in an hour, so you just take a hearty break.

In practical terms, there are some ideas from the design of a massage treatment room that you can replicate in order to set yourself up with cues at home that can help aid in relaxation.

How to create relaxation cues in your own space

When setting up a massage space, I find it helpful to walk through the senses and do a little inventory to ensure the environment is primed for relaxation. Under each sense are some things to think about to optimize your space.

Sense of Sound

Music has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, and even reduce perception of pain. It can also help muffle other possibly distracting noises in your environment. I like to create my own playlists on Spotify for various moods, so for instance, my massage playlist is just a mixture of songs that are pleasant sounding and not distracting. Obviously the music that you use to get you pumped up at the gym is probably not going to be the music you choose when you’re trying to fall asleep. You have to find what works for you. I find high pitched sounds irritating, so a lot of music designed for spa settings that feature high pitched flutes or bird sounds don’t really work for me. Tracks featuring piano are more my speed and pitch preference, so they get a lot of play for me.

Aside from music, another pleasant addition to the sound environment can be anything that produces a white noise effect. In my office, I have an oil diffuser that, even if I’m not using for any scents, I just fill with plain water and turn on for the nice little babbling brook sound it makes. The towel warmer in my office also has a low, pleasant hum that adds to what I consider the cozy sounds of the space. If you need a white noise machine to mask sounds at home (traffic, snoring partner, etc.) this one is great: I even pack it with me when I travel and need to stay in a hotel. It’s a sleep saver!

Sense of Sight

Since we already discussed that visual cues can work to grab your attention and remind you to do a particular action, it follows that they can also be powerful distractions in a space where you’re trying to relax if those visual cues are grabbing your attention and directing it toward something stress inducing, like bills or clutter.

Also included in the sense of sight is the quality of light in a space. Softly lit spaces can help your body begin to transition from day to night, or from activity to stillness and relaxation. Lamps casting soft, warm light, rather than bright overhead lights, are a hallmark of massage treatment rooms for a reason.

Sense of Touch

Think of the textures and temperatures that your body will come into contact with in the environment. Obviously massage is ALL about touch, but in the treatment room I also think about the feel of the sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels and the temperature of the room and the table. In your personal spaces, you likely already pay attention to similar details to create a sense of comfort.

Sense of Smell

Scents are the sense I spend the least amount of time manipulating in the massage treatment room environment, but not because I don’t like aromatherapy. I love scented candles and lotions and all good smelling things but many people are very sensitive to scents. So while you may love lavender, it may give your partner a headache. Scents also commingle and can create some pretty funky and overpowering combinations. For this reason, I like to start from a neutral point with scents. Neutral, clean air is the baseline from which other scents can be explored gradually. Peppermint or lemon in the diffuser are two of my favorite options because they both have refreshing, uplifting qualities. I enjoy this book for learning safe and effective ways to use aromatherapy in my practice and at home:

Finally, there is also just the habit, or ritual, of getting your space prepped for relaxation, which itself can come to cue a relaxation response. Every time I enter my treatment space, I have a habit or series of behaviors to get the space ready. First I turn on the table and towel warmers. Then I set down my things and smooth out the sheets on the table (a little Marie Kondo move to bring some life back to the fabrics, I suppose? Honestly I just love the feel of soft sheets!). Next I turn on the massage music playlist and diffuser and almost always by the end of this first 45 seconds of my routine, I start to feel myself slowing down and relaxing.

What set of actions do you take to get yourself ready for relaxation? Is your environment primed with cues that support the activities you want to do in your spaces?