Anxiety Relief, Body & Soul, Breathe, Exercise, Mind, Mind, Body & Soul, Mindfulness, Resilience, Self-Care, Stress Relief, Wellbeing

Anxiety and Your Psoas Muscle

The psoas is a very important yet often unknown muscle that plays a vital role in your physical health and mental wellbeing. The cumulative effect of neglecting this muscle is physical and mental stress and tension, which manifests itself mentally as anxiety and depression and physically issues such as stretched ligaments, tendonitis, sciatica, dislocations, compressed disc, lower backache, knee, ankle and hip problems may all be traced to imbalances in an exhausted or overused/misused psoas.

Your psoas creates a muscular shelf that your kidneys and adrenals rest on. When you breathe properly your diaphragm moves and your psoas muscles gently massage these organs and stimulate blood circulation. But when the psoas muscles become tense and imbalanced, so do your kidneys and adrenal glands causing physical and emotional exhaustion, digestive distress, respiratory problems and chronic pain.  A chronically tightened psoas continually sends signals to your body that you’re in danger, and this eventually exhausts the adrenal glands.  The psoas even becomes a factor in sexual arousal which is another reason to maintain its health.

Physically ~ Embedded within the deepest layer of connective tissue, the psoas connects the spine to the legs. It is a very significant core postural muscle and since it is located near the body’s centre of gravity it influences balance, nerves, circulation, respiration and energy flow. It measures 16 inches long– beginning at T12 in your spine, attaching all the way along to your lumbar vertebrae and connecting into the femur.  Its main job is to convey messages about subtle changes in structural, neurological, chemical and energetic dynamics.

Emotionally ~ The deep location and connection of the psoas affects the central and peripheral nervous system; your nervous system is communicating with your psoas constantly, and the psoas is sending information back to the nervous system. Since the psoas is closely linked to our “fight, flight, freeze” mechanism, fear can be over-represented in those with a constricted psoas.  Therefore the memory of traumatic stress can be held in the psoas for many years causing tightness and pain and hypervigilance. 

Since our body and mind are intricately linked, how we experience stress, anxiety and trauma is both physiological and psychological.  People can hold embedded memories of traumatic events in the body as well as the brain and since the psoas is an organ of perception its release can begin a healing process.  When muscles are relaxed they begin to affect the rest of the body and the mind, so learning how to release your psoas may help to relieve emotional tension, and even trauma held deep in the core of the body.

As part of the fear response, the psoas prepares us for survival, therefore unresolved fear, trauma and shock causes havoc to the pelvic basin via the psoas.  Humans have an instinctive survival mechanism that produces chemicals to reinforce our ability to fight, flee or freeze.  This protective response is designed to serve us for a short time and then we return to a relaxed state, but constant and long-term stress causes the psoas muscles to become stuck in “fight, flight, freeze” mode and this constricts them.  Any unresolved trauma becomes lodged in our psyche and body – the emotional pain we carry within us, isn’t just in our head it is also etched into our muscles.  To gain a better understanding of this, think of the instinctive foetal position our body assumes when we are startled.  The response of muscles exposed to stress is to contract and this creates what is known as flexor withdrawal.  This position of bringing our extremities together causes us to feel safer by protecting our vulnerable soft parts – our vital organs, genitals, our head and face.

Two of the primary flexor muscles that contract are the psoas muscles.  Any time you feel unsafe or threatened (a verbal jab, a close call driving in traffic, a long-standing argument with your partner or family, day to day anxieties, etc.) the psoas muscles automatically contract and pull the body forward.  At the same time the erector spinae muscles pull the body backwards in an attempt to keep it upright.  These two opposing tensions pull on the lower back and if the tension is continued it will eventually cause shoulder and neck pain as well.  Contracted psoas muscles that aren’t released can develop into patterns of chronic tension in the body, and they become particularly vulnerable to continued stimulation whenever we feel stressed or anxious, causing us to react to even minor stress. 

A tight psoas affects posture, placement, walking, energy and emotions and because of its deep location within the body and its sensitivity to other structures, it is vital that natural bodywork takes place regularly to release and relax the psoas.  Releasing and freeing the psoas muscle allows it to begin a healing process and operate effectively. 

We are living in a time where we are experiencing chronic stress in various forms due to Covid-19, the increase in terrorism, political crises, climate changes, etc.  Therefore it is not surprising that our psoas muscles are tight and contracted in response to these situations that cause fear.  Our modern lifestyle also constricts and places stress on the psoas muscles – from car seats to hobbies, how much sitting or bending forward we do, to our postural habits, to constrictive clothing and shoes – these all contribute to distorting our posture and limiting our natural movements.

In addition to structural health, the psoas is vital to our psychological wellbeing and awareness of this is the first step towards ensuring that we give this muscle the attention it deserves.  The psoas is an emotional muscles and it conveys whether we are centred or vulnerable therefore it is accessed through emotional awareness.

Reconnecting with your psoas regularly can achieve resolution of the fear response and trauma.  Constructive Rest Position is an excellent way to do this as it teaches you how to release one of the most chronically tense muscles in everyone.

Constructive Rest Position is the simplest way to release psoas muscle contraction, as it allows the skeleton and gravity to do the work of neutral alignment in a restful state.  This unravels tension patterns that are held deep in the core and allows us to let go of old emotional conditioning.  Resting in this position helps you to recognise and work with pelvic instability and unresolved emotional holding patterns.  In this pose, you don’t need to anything but relax. Gravity will do the work.

How to do Constructive Rest Position

Find a quiet and comfortable place to rest where you will be undisturbed. 

Lie on a blanket or yoga mat and have a towel in case you need to create a small pillow to place underneath your head.

Lie on your back with your head parallel to the floor.  Your head should rest at the same level as the spine and pelvis, so if you use a towel to support the head (no thicker than 1-2 inches), place the towel under the upper half of your skull, not under the neck and as you settle more deeply into the position you may need to lower or remove it completely.

Feet flat on the floor, knees hip width apart and bent at a 45 degree angle. Place a soft ball fully inflated or a yoga bolster or large cushion (the width of your hip sockets) between your legs as this helps to maintain the correct skeletal alignment of the legs and feet.

OR use a chair to support the legs by placing your lower legs and feet on the seat of a flat chair, parallel to the floor.  Your knees will be bent at a right angle. Rest your hands anywhere that is comfortable.

In Constructive Rest Position maintain a centred and neutral pelvis – neither flattening nor exaggerating the curves in your lower back or neck. This neutral position is the starting point for unravelling all of the tension in your body. 

Imagine you are “smiling” with the back of your abdominals.  Let it all go by sensing the weight of your bones sinking down into the mat. If you notice any part of your skeleton that feels as though it is suspended, simply let it go. 

Feel for any place where a muscular contraction prevents the bones from surrendering to the pull of gravity and let it relax completely.  As your psoas releases, the distribution of weight against the mat will start to feel more even throughout your body.

Take your time to rest here and simply notice what takes place.  Constructive Rest Position is a non-doing position.  It is a being position. It is gravity that releases the energetic nerve tension out of the psoas and that’s what makes this position so constructive.

Begin with daily sessions lasting 5-10 minutes and gradually increase over time to 20 minutes.  If you experience tingling along the sacrum, move out of the position by rolling onto your side.  Tingling or numbness indicates that you have been in the position too long, or that your skeletal alignment limits the length of time you can stay in Constructive Rest Position.

When you are ready to come out of the position, let your knees lead as you roll over onto one side and allow your whole body to follow.  Rest there for a moment and then move onto all fours and use your hands and feet to push up off the floor to stand.

Remember that fear is an emotion that can “lock” itself into the body resulting in both physical and emotional tension. By regularly restoring balance to your psoas muscles you are likely to release this pent up tension, which can have a profound effect on both your physical and mental wellbeing. You will feel a greater sense of inner peace, along with fewer muscle aches and strains.  When the body can properly support itself, movement is less restricted and requires less effort thus leaving you more energetic.  Lengthening and releasing the psoas muscles restores comfort and balance to the entire body. With consistent practice, you can learn how to isolate this muscle which can be immensely useful and healing in the long run.

Bibliography:

Staugaard-Jones, Jo Ann. The Vital Psoas Muscle.  Lotus Publishing, Chichester, PO, 2012 and North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2012.

Koch, Liz, Core Awareness. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2012.

Berceli, David. The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process. Namaste Publishing, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6J 1Z1.

Anxiety Relief, Body & Soul, Breathe, Mind, Mind, Body & Soul, Resilience, Self-Care, Stress Relief, Wellbeing

Tone Your Vagus Nerve To Calm Anxiety

post-vagus

Chronic stress, anxiety and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic (‘fight, flight, freeze’) and parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) functions of your nervous system.

Your vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) nervous system and it is a branching nerve that starts at the base of the skull and travels throughout the body like a system of roots or cables, connecting most of the major organs between the brain and colon such as the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems.

It is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves and it is in charge of turning off our ‘fight or flight’ reflex. It is described as being responsible for the mind-body connection as it is a mediator between thinking and feeling – think of the saying ‘trust your gut’ as really meaning ‘trust your vagus nerve.’

Breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is the simplest way to increase vagal tone.  Nose breathing activates the vagal receptors found in the lower lobes of the lungs that mouth breathing cannot access.  Slow, smooth breathing immediately relaxes the body, because it stimulates the vagus nerve, and this activates our relaxation response, reduces our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure.

Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed to 5-7 breaths per minute.  Breathing in through your nose, so that you feel your  belly expanding and making your exhalation longer and slower than your inhalation is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.

In order for you to slow your breath to 5-7 breaths per minute, try this breathing practice:  To begin take a few slower, deeper breaths and continue to gradually deepen your breathing in a way that feels comfortable for you.  Then to begin to slow your breaths to 5-7 breaths per minute, count to 5 on your inhalation, then hold for a moment, and slowly exhale to a count of 10.

We live in a world that over-stimulates and over-activates our sympathetic (‘fight, flight, freeze’) nervous system; therefore we need tools that help us to engage the parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) nervous system on a daily basis.

If left untreated, chronic stress, anxiety and unresolved trauma can disrupt your physical, mental, and emotional health.  An unhealthy vagal tone will compromise the nervous system leading to inflammation, lack of homeostasis, brain fog, and an increase in stress hormones.

A healthy vagal tone is in a state of homeostasis (balance) and is associated with feelings such as: trust, compassion, acceptance, and joy. When we are parasympathetically dominant, our breath is full, slow, and deep. The digestive system works well and the body can focus on repair, including the reduction of inflammation, tissue repair, and hormone production.

Strengthening and toning your vagus nerve can put you in control of your body and mind. When this system is more active, you have a “buffer” for stress that can help you to stay calm and present in challenging situations.

Here are some other practices you can do daily to improve your vagal tone:

  • Singing, chanting Om, humming, and gargling ~ The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so singing, chanting Om, humming, and gargling all create vibrations that activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.  Singing also produces slow, regular and deep breathing.
  • Cold Water ~ Any kind of acute cold exposure including splashing your face or body with cold water or drinking ice cold water will increase vagus nerve activation.
  • Gut bacteria~ The vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, and this, in turn, plays a major role in our brain and behaviour. Adding good quality probiotics into your diet improves brain function and can be really helpful, not only to your gut, but also to your vagus nerve.
  • Yoga ~ Restorative yoga poses help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby strengthening the vagus nerve and balancing the nervous system in a positive way.
  • Meditation, Tai Chi and Relaxation Techniques ~ Breathing deeply and slowly from the belly to tone or stimulate the vagus nerve is common in all of these techniques.
  • Acupuncture ~ Stimulating specific acupoints through traditional acupuncture, especially to the ear, stimulates the vagus nerve.
  • Craniosacral Therapy~ This gentle type of bodywork can release restrictions in the fascia, muscles, viscera, and organs within the body, so the vagus nerve can move freely and communicate sensory information to the brain.

If you’re in a stressful situation and you consciously slow down your breathing just for one minute, you can put yourself in a calmer state.  Increasing your vagal tone can help you to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.

By stimulating your vagus nerve every day, you send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.

Body & Soul, Breathe, Mind, Mind, Body & Soul, Mindfulness, Resilience, Self-Care, Stress Relief, Wellbeing

Breathing To Calm Your Mind And Body

breathing deeply

We all breathe all the time, but do we know how to breathe properly? Take a normal breath in and then exhale.  How much air are you taking in? Dancers, actors, meditators, swimmers, athletes and yogis all work consciously on their breathing as it is vital in order to perform well.   Every time you breathe, you nourish your body and brain, so it’s very important to understand the health implications of not breathing properly and how this impacts on your emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.

Most people breathe from their chest and this contributes to neck and shoulder tension, because you are constantly using the muscles in the top half of your body that are not intended for breathing.  Breathing from the lower half of your body – known as belly breathing which involves the bottom half of your ribcage moving and your belly expanding – is reminding your body of how it is designed to work.  To effectively combat stress, you need to breathe in this way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka your body’s relaxation response).

In addition to its calming physical effects, activating your body’s relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. With regular practice anyone can reap these benefits.

Why has our breathing become inefficient? 

Why has our breathing become inefficient?  Stress – we’re constantly rushing, multi-tasking, overthinking, overdoing it and feeling overloaded. We do everything fast: we walk faster, eat faster, talk faster and we age faster! Consequently our breathing is constantly in fast mode, it’s shallow and quick.  This has terrible health repercussions because every cell in your body needs oxygen, therefore many illnesses are caused or made worse by a lack or imbalance of oxygen. Breathing from your chest underutilises your diaphragm so that your exhalation becomes very passive and instead of using your exhalation muscles, you simply let the air out.  Even though it may feel normal for you to breathe this way, it becomes dysfunctional because the exchange of oxygen to carbon dioxide is out of balance. You could inhale more fresh air if you exhaled all the stale air out more fully each time.

Sub-optimal breathing contributes to:-

Cognitive problems ~ less oxygen = concentration difficulties and memory problems.

Emotional problems ~ depression and anxiety are worsened by shallow breathing.

Acidity and inflammation ~ increase in and longer duration of pain.

Spinal health ~ using incorrect muscles to breathe causes neck & shoulder tension.

Low energy ~ shallow breathing delivers less oxygen to the cells, leading to cells having to prioritize survival over growth and repair.

Hypertension ~ breathing badly constricts blood vessels which can lead to higher blood pressure which in turn makes the heart work harder.

Digestive difficulties ~ breathing muscles stimulate peristalsis, the wave-like motion of the intestines that promotes digestion and elimination. Without this internal abdominal massage, symptoms such as constipation, bloating, gas, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome increase.

Poor sleep ~ shallow breathing switches on your sympathetic nervous system (aka ‘fight or flight’ response) which impairs deep sleep.

Teach yourself how to belly breathe

Breathing correctly leads to better oxygenation and also works your core more efficiently leading to stronger muscles.  Teach yourself how to belly breathe using the lower half of your body to expand in a subtle 3-dimensional way on the inhalation – feel the bottom half of your ribcage, your lower abdomen, the sides of your waist and lower back all expanding and learn to contract those muscles a lot more when expelling all the old stale air out when you exhale.  Simply practicing mindful belly breathing little and often throughout the day will remind your how to breathe properly, and by changing your breathing you will be able to improve your wellbeing and learn to control stress – not let it control you.