Many of our clients come to see us for recurrent or chronic neck pain, headaches and back pain that have a significant contribution from the effects of stress. We all experience stress in our lives, some more than others, but it is our habitual response to it that varies and can cause us pain.
When we are stressed the body goes into the “fight or flight” response where we are on alert and ready to stay and defend, or run. while this is a useful short term response for survival, it should not be maintained for prolonged periods. During the stress response certain muscles in the jaw, neck, back and legs become activated, our posture may change and our breathing becomes shallow using only the upper airways. Breathing in this way causes our shoulders to hunch up and overuses the muscles in the front and sides of the neck that elevate the ribs causing neck stiffness. Jaw grinding and clenching can lead to headache, neck stiffness and damage teeth and their nerves. When we lean forwards at the desk or computer we over activate deep muscles in the trunk (hip flexor muscles) which stiffen the hips and lower back. Chronic stress also impairs the body’s ability to cope with inflammation allowing pain to get out of control.
Learning to observe our stress response and its triggers is the first step to modifying this learned behaviour. Learning how to modify our response to stress may need some extra help. Many of our clients have been able to achieve this by learning mediation or seeking the help of a Clinical Hypnotherapist. Knowing who to see or where to go for can be daunting so here are two tried tested and trusted practitioners we refer to.
De-stress breathing: how to turn off the stress response in 5 deep breaths
This diagram from Tom Myers brilliant and readable book Anatomy Trains shows the muscles typically activated during the stress response. These muscle are necessary to protect the bodys vital organs or run to escape. The upper neck muscles raise the shoulders and ribs are used to shallow breathe to access the “ reserve tank” in our lungs. The inner thigh and hip flexor muscles deep in the abdomen are activated to protect the vital organs , while the toe flexor muscles deep in the calf are activate for sprinting. The jaw is clenched in a protective and aggressive response. We now know that muscles that are wired together fire together so the stress response can result in activation of all the muscles at once. This response should be short lived in response to a stressor, however many of us maintain this response for prolonged periods without realizing it. The result is generalized pain and stiffness and “crashing” of our deep core stabilizers in the shoulders, trunk and pelvis which results in recurrent injuries. The good news is that we can turn off this effect via our breathing. A stressed state produces rapid , shallow upper airways breathing, where as a relaxed state involves slow breathing into the lower ribs and abdomen.
De-stress breathing technique:
- Sit with your back against the back of a chair or lie down
- Check for increased tension in your jaw or inner thigh muscles
- Relax shoulders down
- Place your hands on the lower ribs
- Breathe into the lower ribs slowly for the count of 4 , and out for the count of 4
- Increase 1 count in and out for each breath up to 8. Your breathing will become slower and deepr as you do this.
- Retest for muscle tension in the jaw or inner thighs. They should now feel relaxed.
- Monitor tension in the jaw or inner thigh and repeat throughout the day when you are under stress.