Stress & Myofascial release

Ever wonder what the connection between everyday stress & chronic muscle tension was? Here here you have it!

People always ask me, “Why are my neck & shoulders always sore & tense?”. That’s a very common question that I get regularly. The answer, is complex in many cases. But I feel that one way to help fix this common complaint is through therapeutic massage and good old fashioned exercise, or yoga to be more specific. The following is some great information on how to create more space in the body and allow it’s energies to flow more freely and unrestricted.

How can chronic stress or emotional trauma cause fascial restrictions? When the body and mind are under constant stress without adequate time to recover or decompress, the body can start to become inflamed. For example, spending way too many hours working at a computer with crushing deadlines to meet; and then not having a proper outlet to unwind afterwards

So many people go on day after day carrying loads of tension and tightness in their upper bodies. Unable to turn their head without straining, constantly rubbing their own neck for relief, some even unable to completely relax their shoulders down by their sides. Long hours at the office, high stress, bad posture and lack of physical movement can all take a huge toll on the body. Does this at all sound like something familiar?

 If you are one of the many people who suffers from chronic neck pain due to stress and tension, here are some helpful tips and guidelines for getting some relief and letting go of all that unnecessary baggage that we carry around. Myofascial restrictions in the body are sometimes one of the hidden, underlying causes of pain and dysfunction in the body. Myofascial release is an effective and gentle treatment that helps restore range of motion and release tension. This is a hands on technique that uses a light stretch or friction on the skin that releases the fascial restrictions and opens blocked energy or congestion in the muscle tissue underneath.

So what does all of that mean, and why does it become restricted and congested underneath? Fascia is a basic connective tissue that runs throughout the entire body; it consists of collagen and elastin fibers along with ground substance. This tissue is somewhat crystalline in nature, meaning that it is excellent for conducting energy and information. For example, take a look at a piece of chicken breast. As you slice it apart you may notice a whitish viscous membrane lying in between the muscle tissue, this is the fascia. Fascia runs throughout the entire body, providing a smooth membrane for muscles to glide past one another during movements. It also serves as a method of conducting energy from nervous signals in the body and providing communication to underlying structures. When the fascia becomes restricted, it can result in pain, tightening of the muscles, restriction of motion, inflammation, fatigue and many other related symptoms.

So what causes fascial restrictions? Fascial restrictions can be a result of any kind of physical trauma in the body; like a car accident, falling down, or a sports related injury. It can even come from psychological damage, poor posture, inflammation from stress or diet, repetitive motions, and bad lifestyle habits such as dehydration from excessive alcohol consumption or a sedentary lifestyle.

How can chronic stress or emotional trauma cause fascial restrictions? When the body and mind are under constant stress without adequate time to recover or decompress, the body can start to become inflamed. For example, spending way too many hours working at a computer with crushing deadlines to meet; and then not having a proper outlet to unwind afterwards. Or even worse, going home eating a poor diet, staying up late watching television and not getting enough sleep. This is common for so many people, and one of the reasons why they get pain and stiffness in the head, neck & shoulders.

The emotional triggers for stress in the body can have an enormous impact. “Many cases of back pain begin with an injury, but if you look carefully, you will also find psycho/ emotional issues such as tension, weakness, or contraction prior to the injury”, as Deb Shapiro explains in her book, Your Body Speaks Your Mind. “Issues of survival are connected to the back: the responsibility of earning a living, carrying your own weight, being the ‘backbone’ of the family, or standing on your own. Thoughts like, “I’m not being supported” or “I’m being let down” can translate into back pain or weakness.” Is there someone or something putting pressure on you? Do you feel overloaded?

“The clearest way to see how the mind effects the body is through stress. The cerebral cortex in the brain sounds the alarm whenever there is a life threatening or stressful activity. This affects the limbic and hypothalamus systems, which in turn affect hormone secretion, the immune system and the sympathetic nervous system. This fight-or-flight response enables you to respond to danger”. However, seemingly unimportant events can also trigger a stress reaction because the brain is unable to tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When you focus on your fear about what might happen, it plays just as much havoc on your hormones and chemical balance as when you confront a dangerous situation in real life.

So in a very literally sense, mental stress can translate into physical stress. Anger, rage, guilt, sadness, shame or fear can all over time create a physical imprint in the body. During these moments, the body experiences a freeze response, and this psychological memory then becomes imprinted into our mind/body. In yoga this is described as samskaras. These memories and feelings are then put away into the subconscious and this can keep the body in holding or bracing patterns that start in the fascia that eventually lead to symptoms down the road such as headaches, anxiety, muscle tension and inflammation.

Mentioned earlier, fascia provides a system of protection and communication between all of the muscles in the body; when the fascia becomes compromised due to stress and inflammation, it is going to communicate that very same message to the underlying muscle tissues. That is where myofascial release comes into play. During this treatment, the therapist applies a light pressure and slight traction to the affected areas causing the microscopic underlying structures in the muscles to unwind and release, allowing energy to return and flow back into the structures.

Myofascial release can help alleviate a variety a issues such as neck and back pain, headaches, TMJ, stress and tension, chronic fatigue, scar tissue, sports injuries, shoulder and arm pain, and even helps calm some neurological disorders. Not only does it help alleviate these symptoms in the body, but also helps one release any emotional stress and increase whole body awareness to eliminate pain.

Yoga is a great adjunct to the practice of myofascial release. The benefits of yoga such as stretching the meridians, easing muscle tension, strengthening muscles, flushing localized blood supply, etc – have been well documented. What may be of interest is that certain styles of yoga will also influence the fascia and can be used to correct fascial distortions. This is done by holding postures for a prolonged period of time that have an effect on connective tissue and fascia.

The fundamental characteristic of Yin Yoga or Slow Flow is holding poses for several minutes. Connective tissue doesn’t respond to brief, rhythmical stretches the way muscles do. Connective tissues are tough and fibrous and stretch best when pulled like taffy. Imagine holding two ends of a piece of taffy and pulling strenuously for a second or two, nothing much will happen unless you pull it so hard it snaps (like a football knee injury). However, if you gently pull taffy for a long time it will slowly stretch apart. You might be tempted to say, “This isn’t good for connective tissue either!” But remember, taffy is inert and doesn’t respond to strain the way living connective tissue does. Holding postures for a few minutes with moderate stress is not going to stretch the connective tissue to the breaking point, it is only going to stretch it minutely and if you are persistent the body will respond by growing it a little longer… which is what you want.

Our teeth are bones anchored in bone and yet we know from experience that they change. No one would think it viable to “exercise the teeth” by grabbing hold of them and wiggling them back and forth as in Yang activity. But with the patient, and methodical use of braces and retainers even bones can be moved and re-aligned. Likewise, the connective tissues that form our joints can be safely and desirably “exercised” by gently stretching them in yoga postures.

So the next time you notice that there’s some stiffness and pain in your neck and shoulder area, ask yourself, “What’s causing this” and “What am I holding onto that I need to let go?” Taking time out to workout, practice yoga, or booking a therapeutic massage such as myofascial release are some great ways to get rid of stress and lessen/ prevent fascial restriction in the body.  Learning to listen to our bodies and then giving them the attention and love they deserve is one of the best and most important gifts that one can give themselves.