The Impact of Holding Stress and How to Heal

This article was originally published in canfitpro magazine May/June 2017 edition 

It’s hard to deny the impact of holding stress in our bodies. Many of us have experienced tension headaches from a day in front of the computer. We wear mouth guards to protect our teeth from grinding in our sleep. Our digestion is quickly impacted by stress at home or at work, and to top that off once we finally catch a break with a day to rest we end up sick.

Yoga teaches us somatic awareness, creating awareness of sensation in the body and its reaction to emotion and/or stress. A favourite saying in Yoga: “To listen to the whispers of the body, before you hear the screams.” Through a mindful yoga practice, we learn to pay attention to the subtlety of movement and the impact of breath work. We may also from time to time experience an emotional release from this work, often during deep hip openers like pigeon pose or within final relaxation. Sometimes we know where this emotion comes from and other times it catches us off guard as pent up tension or perhaps years of stored trauma beginning to be released.

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According to Liz Koch and her book: Core Awareness, we need to focus on the hydration of our psoas muscle. In fact she views the psoas not as a muscle at all but as an organ. The psoas muscle inserts on the greater trochanter, at the top inside of the leg, wraps across the ball and socket joint of our hip, continues along the back of our pelvis and inserts into T12, fanning out its fibers on to our diaphragm. Tension in our hips affects the physical surroundings of the joint: front of hip, lower and mid back. However, due to the connection of the diaphragm this tension is also experienced in our ability to breathe deeply, therefore affecting our cardiovascular ability and capacity and setting us up for stress based diseases such as heart disease. As per Koch’s research, the psaos stores unreleased emotions and stress in addition to impacting posture, vitality and ease of movement.

I’m not sure that I’ve met anyone in the fitness industry who hasn’t complained of tight and sore hips. Clearly, looking at what we do, it’s no wonder really. Repetitive hip flexion in squats, running, cycling even in yoga. If you are like me, you’ve probably spent years searching for new stretches and equipment to help release this tension. But what if all this pulling, pushing and stretching to try to open up this locked down muscle was really making it worse? What if what we really needed to do was just let it be? At the risk of being even more controversial to the fitness industry, what if the six-pack abs we have been craving, are doing more harm than good?

I understand how backwards this sounds, especially from a Yoga teacher. However, consider this: our stress response. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), responsible for fight or flight, is the involuntary reaction we have to stress. This is hard-wired and luckily so, as it’s the system that fights for our survival. When we experience stress, our amygdala or the smoke detector of our brain doesn’t know the difference between real (being chased by tiger) or perceived (worried about an upcoming job interview) stress. The initial reactions are to speed up the heart rate and breath, stop digestion and tense the body by setting the jaw and stomach muscles, curling in and flexing at the hip in preparation for survival, stand and fight or run. The hippocampus, connected to the amygdala then steps in quickly to determine if this is in fact a life-threatening situation and the final reaction plays out accordingly. Often this physical shift is so subtle we don’t notice as we spend more time here then we do relaxed. Based on this we must consider, is our high stress, go-go lifestyle contributing more to our “tight hips” than anything we are doing physically?

In looking at the impact of stress on the body we have two serious things to consider:

  1. Continuous stress (real or imagined) adds up over time, physically shrinking our hippocampus, affecting memory and compromising our ability to reset our nervous system after the stress has past.
  2. Without properly releasing the physical response from our bodies after the stress has passed, tension or stored traumas begin to accumulate in the body.

A great example of this is seen on nature shows. We watch the gazelle being chased by the lion and subsequently getting away. The camera pans in to the relieved gazelle as we watch it lift its legs and shake fiercely with a final shake through the spine before trotting off. This technique of shaking is now being emulated by bio-mechanists and neuroscientists, such as Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. David Berceli, as well as practiced in the YogaFit for Warriors program in an effort to expel trauma and reset the nervous system.

One of the keys to our continued success in the fitness industry, as fitness professionals, is that in large part we are doing similar work of re-setting the nervous system post-stress through exercise and yoga. And this works, providing the stress is minimal and the recovery practices are ongoing. As we’ve seen from above, chronic stress and deeply held traumas change both our brain and our bodies. We must also consider, in using exercise or yoga as a way to release stress, are we in fact experiencing this release, such as the runner’s high or a long savasana or are we furthering the damage by pushing ourselves through tough workouts we essentially don’t have the energy for? How can we advance or deepen our current practices to address how we are releasing stress before more damage is created?

Our vagus nerve, attached to our cranium or brain stem sends messages from our brain to our body and back up to our brain again. The vagus nerve itself touches many of the important organs of our body including: larynx, lungs, heart, spleen, stomach, liver, gall bladder, kidney, small intestine and colon. According to Dr. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory, we need practices that create vagal toning, addressing the vagus nerve directly to bring us back online to what he’s transcribed as our social engagement system, or our ability to connect with others. This is why in times of high stress we often feel isolated, or like the world is working against us. When we work with the vagus nerve we turn on our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – the opposing system to our stress response, sympathetic nervous system (SNS). PNS is rest and digest. It is only in PNS that we can heal. Why rest and sleep are essential when healing from surgery, or craved so deeply after a stressful time has passed. Also why for those of us in chronic stress, we bounce between utter exhaustion and the inability to actually rest.

Practices to increase vagal toning include:

  • Deep breathing: whether matching breath to movement in yoga or simply sitting still practicing deep belly breaths. Ujjayi breath or whisper breath also practiced in yoga.
  • Chanting: for the vibrations it sends through the body. This can be done by chanting OM or other traditional mantras, or what about just singing in the shower or in our car.

Practices to release the psoas include:

  • Constructive rest position: simply lying on our backs with knees bent at a 45-degree angle with both feet flat on the floor. This is the only position of the body where the psoas is completely at rest. Liz Koch suggests holding this pose for 10 minutes everyday.
  • Let the shake happen: when moving through deeper stretches and our body begins to shake, often in a hamstring stretch, don’t hold back or try to control, but allow the release.
  • Refocus hip work and stretches by reducing the effort. Try only using 50-60% effort over 100% and allow the psoas to quietly soften and hydrate over being pulled and forced into a pose.

If we’ve been doing the same thing and getting the same results, isn’t it time to switch up the routine?