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Stress and Back Pain

You may have heard that back pain can be directly related to stress, but you’re not sure how the physical back, made up of bones, muscles and nerves might be affected by emotions. Let me explain how this works.

The next time you’re feeling stressed, pay close attention to your posture. You’ll probably find that you’re slumped over with tension in your neck and shoulders which are rounded forward. Check out your ‘stress signature’ right now as you sit here reading this article. Are your shoulders tight or soft? What about your jaw? What’s your breathing like? Are your breaths long and deep or short and shallow? Is reading this MAKING you stressed? Just see what you notice in your body.

There is so much wisdom in our bodies that enables us to tense up and assume a protective posture of rounding forward. In the face of danger, this means that our SNS (sympathetic nervous system) has fired and our stress hormones are released to help us fight, flee or freeze. What a brilliant system! However, what happens when we’re no longer in a stress situation? Does the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) activate to help us rest and recover? Or has our posture response to stress become our default, which may lead to many other imbalances in the body, including back pain?

We hold all of our experiences in our bodies. One of my favorite resources in this area is the excellent book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. He maintains that we hold trauma in our bodies. So if you experienced a traumatic incident as a child and your body helped you feel protected by assuming a posture of flexion, or rounding forward as in the fetal position, has this body behavior remained? Is it serving you or is it causing you pain?

Have you heard of the Psoas muscle? Many body workers think of it as the most important muscle in the body. It is the muscle of standing, of movement, and of emotion (What does that mean???? Read on). We have two of them – one on each side. The psoas inserts into T12 (the lowest vertebra in the thorax), it emerges out of each lumbar vertebra, moves through the pelvis and connects to the top of the back of the femur (our thigh bone). Guess what else connects at T12? The diaphragm. When we are stressed, our breaths are often short and shallow. This often translates to tension in the psoas. In addition, the posture of flexion that helps us to feel safe also shortens the psoas.

Flexion in this sense means that the muscles of the body are moving out of balance – some are shortened and tightened (not strengthened) and the opposing muscles are lengthened and weakened.  When the muscles of the core no longer work as postural support muscles, the task falls on the muscles of the back, frequently resulting in back pain.

Do we release this tension when we’re not stressed? Do we process the energy triggered by the SNS in order to balance it with the PNS so all this energy doesn’t get stuck in the body?

This might be a simplistic explanation for how stress affects back pain. I have worked with clients who come to me saying that there isn’t a moment in the day when they don’t feel back pain. When I teach them the ‘letting go’ aspect of alignment that is a subtle movement of energy, they report that they feel no pain and they feel calmer. I’m not focusing on the emotional aspect of letting go. We work with letting go physically. Sometimes this reverberates in the emotions.

IMPROVING CORE FUNCTION uses alignment – and letting go – as an integral part of the program, to heal unproductive body behaviors and imbalances in the body. Of course, this letting go is combined with learning how to stabilize part of the body, for any given task. It is this combination of ‘stability and ease’ that can heal chronic back pain. There are also practices for releasing the psoas to help bring the body into balance.

A 75 year old male client, suffering from chronic back pain, recently gave me this feedback: “I have often realized during my adult life that everything you said to me this week were my main issues but I had never found the pathway to do something about the problems. I will be forever grateful to you for showing me the path.”

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