Have you ever seen a friend at a distance and just known that they are feeling down? Their body language, the way in which they are holding their body, betrays their emotional state. Our internal psycho-emotional state is reflected in our musculo-skeletal system and thus our body posture changes to match our mood. Therefore stress and the musculo-skeletal system are closely linked.
As we have discussed previously, it is important for survival that our body is able to respond to physical and emotional threats as quickly as possible. These threats, or stressors, may take any form and as such, all our body systems respond accordingly through the “fright, flight or fight” reflex. The effects of stress on our musculo-skeletal system may include; muscular reactivity, chronic muscular tension and pain, migraine and tension headaches, exaggeration of reflexive postural patterns and, if the stress continues for a long period of time, eventual bone demineralisation.
If any musculo-skeletal posture is repeated over a long period of time then our wonderful nervous system will “pattern” that particular combination of tight muscles and posture into an easily reproducible motor program. This patterned motor program will be quick to re-establish the next time stress is experienced. Our ability to relax decreases and our energy expenditure increases. The more times this muscular pattern is reinforced, the quicker and more entrenched the postural set will be and the more difficult it will be to re-train.
Therefore, through repeated exposure to stress, our bodies are learning to create a physical response and self perpetuate its reinforced manifestation.
Fortunately, this works in reverse. By understanding the mechanism we are able to learn to mitigate its effects and even re-program the pattern to one that is less detrimental. Through mindfulness and learning to neutrally observe our own stress responses, we are able to slowly change how our physical body reflects our internal stress state. It is not easy and requires a considerable effort to remain “present” in the moment and not be swept away by the “fright, flight or fight” reflex.
In addition, a skilful physical therapist will address this stress mechanism in the body tissues and work backwards through the musculo-skeletal pattern seeking to reduce the muscular tone and create a new lower threshold of activation associated with the stressor. Working repeatedly, in both directions with the full engagement of the subject a new, less detrimental, stress response may be established.
One of the most important techniques to achieving mindfulness is to concentrate on our breathing. This is really fortunate because, as we discussed last issue, our breathing changes under stress so by becoming aware of our breath we are solving several problems at once!
David and Jeannie Baskeyfield
and the Osteopathic Natural Health Team
Read more about the effects of stress on the musculo-skeletal system at the American Psychological Society.