In the first part of Imaginary Tigers, we learned how our stress responses can lead to chronic stress, and how we can learn to perceive stressful situations differently in order to avoid chronic stress and the health risks that go along with it.
Now we’ll discuss the ways in which stress leads to chronic muscle pain, and learn an exercise to help you kick start the relaxation response of your parasympathetic nervous system.
Whenever you perceive stress you have a physical reaction to it, and that stress reaction always involves some muscle contraction. The contractions typically occur in very predictable patterns – we’ll discuss these patterns below. When you’re experiencing chronic stress, you are constantly sending that message from your brain to your muscles to contract.
Over time, this muscle tension becomes habituated; meaning that your muscles are not just contracting in response to perceived stress anymore, but they are staying contracted because you have taught your brain to keep them contracted. Your brain likes to be as efficient as possible, so if you are constantly sending the message to contract certain muscles, after a while your brain will just keep them contracted all the time. So, over time your stress responses actually become learned movement patterns or postural patterns.
I mentioned earlier that the muscle contractions involved in stress responses tend to occur in predictable patterns. One of these patterns is the Withdrawal Reflex, also known as the Startle Reflex. This reflex is hardwired into our nervous systems, and it occurs in all organisms that have a nervous system. Even amoebas have it! All organisms have this reflex as a method of self-protection.
The Withdrawal Reflex is a self-defense mechanism. When we are scared, anxious, or feel threatened, we automatically contract our abdominals to pull our body into the fetal position in order to protect our internal organs. This reflex can also be triggered by emotional trauma or chronic low-grade stress.
The typical pattern of muscle contraction that occurs with the Withdrawal reflex is:
- Contraction of the abdominal and chest muscles, resulting in shoulders rounding forward, the rib cage pulled forward and down, and the pelvis tucked under
- Contraction of the upper trapezius muscle, raising the shoulders up toward the ears
- Contraction of the inner thigh muscles and hamstrings, making knees bend and turn inward
- Clenching of jaw and contracting muscles of the brow and around the eyes
When this pattern of muscle contraction becomes habituated, it can lead to severe health problems. Tight abdominal and chest muscles put a great deal of pressure on internal organs, leading to cardiac conditions like high blood pressure, digestive issues, stomach pains and cramps, shallow breathing, and frequent urination.
In addition, when tight abdominals pull the rib cage forward, you will automatically pull your head backward in order to balance yourself out and be able to see straight ahead. This means that your neck, shoulder, and back muscles are working extra hard to help you stand up straight. Often people who are hunched forward in a rounded posture will feel pain in their back, neck, and shoulders, even though the root cause of their pain is actually the contraction of their abdominal muscles.
The Landau Reflex is the second major reflex that occurs in response to stress. Like the Withdrawal Reflex, it is hardwired into our nervous system. It kicks in when we’re between 3-6 months old, allowing a baby to contract the muscles in his back. The baby can then arch his back, lift up his head, begin crawling and eventually sit up on his own.
It is commonly thought that the Landau Reflex goes away once a person has learned how to get himself off the floor and become upright and mobile. But it doesn’t go away – we have this reflex for our entire lives. Every time you want to get up and go, you automatically, reflexively arch your lower back. Notice this next time you start to get out of a chair – your lower back muscles will automatically contract and your pelvis will roll forward a little.
The Landau Reflex isn’t just activated by functional needs, like getting out of a chair. It is also activated by emotions. Whenever we are called upon to act, to perform, to answer the phone, to give a presentation – anything where we feel “on the spot” – the Landau Reflex is triggered. So, anyone who has a high-stress job and feels like they need to be “on” all the time will have their Landau Reflex constantly triggered all day long, every day. Imagine what that does to the lower back after a while – the muscles become chronically contracted. That is how many people’s lower back pain starts.
The typical pattern of muscle contraction that occurs with the Landau reflex is:
- Contraction of the lower back muscles, making the back arch and the pelvis tilt forward
- Contraction of the gluteal muscles, making the legs rotate out and the toes point outward
- Locking of the knees
- Contraction of the middle trapezius and rhomboids, pulling the shoulder blades together in back and externally rotating the arms
The most significant health problem caused by the Landau Reflex is back problems, ranging from muscle pain to bulging and herniated discs to sciatica. Back problems can range from mild to severe, and over time what begins as chronic muscle contraction can lead to permanent structural damage to the spine. Neck and shoulder tightness are common as well, and even headaches can result from tight neck muscles pulling on the muscles which cover your skull.
Preventing and Reversing the Negative Effects of Stress
Stress triggering reflexes leading to chronic pain and severe health problems – this is not an inevitable chain of events. The ways in which our stress responses lead to chronic muscle pain and other health issues are completely preventable. By developing self-awareness and practicing Somatic movements to release chronic muscle tension, you can easily prevent and recover from the negative effects of stress.
“As we grow older, our bodies – and our lives – should continue to improve, right up until the very end. I believe that all of us, in our hearts, feel that this is how life really should be lived.” -Dr. Thomas Hanna
One of the most immediate effects of stress is shallow breathing. Many of us go through our daily lives taking fairly shallow breaths up into our rib cage. Stop for a minute and notice what your normal breathing feels like. Are you inhaling up into your rib cage, or down into your belly, or both?
When you perceive stress, you start taking shallow breaths up into your chest. The easiest way to calm yourself down and regulate your breathing and heart rate is to focus on taking slow, deep breaths down into your belly. Breathing is an action that is controlled automatically by the Autonomic Nervous System but can easily be brought into voluntary control.
Start taking slow, relaxed breaths down into your belly. Imagine the air going downward and let your belly expand like a big balloon. How does this affect your mental state?
Now, inhale just into your chest. Let your ribs expand upward and to the sides, as if you’re gasping. Is this a relaxing way to breathe? Could you fall asleep breathing like this?
Now come back to the slow, relaxed belly breathing. Start by inhaling to a count of 5, then exhaling to a count of 10. As you start to gain control of your breathing, you’ll be able to inhale and exhale to a count of 15 or 20. This exercise is a great way to help yourself slow down and relax in a stressful situation or at night when you get in bed.
I hope you have enjoyed this two-part series on the effects of stress, and that you’ve been able to start reducing stress in your own life. In next month’s article I’ll be addressing the underlying causes of shoulder pain. If you have a topic that you’d like me to discuss in an article, please send me an email at email@example.com.