Warning: This article contains tortured metaphors. Also nothing in this article is intended to replace medical advice. If you are in pain or feel sick please go to a doctor.
A few of my friends recently have complained about sudden onset of pain and muscular aches – in their neck, in their lower back, in their feet and legs, in their shoulder. Because I know them, I also know that all of them were under some kind of stress (isn’t everyone) when the pain occurred. So I thought I’d write a little article about how stress and emotional holding in can lead to muscular tension and pain, as many of the books I’ve been reading lately in my studies on mind – body connection and massage relate to how suppressed emotions, unconscious unhappiness or anger can manifest as physical disorders.
The books that I refer to include Bioenergetics by Alexander Lowen, Bodymind by Ken Dychtwald and Healing Trauma by Peter Levine. Caroline Myss also has an excellent book called Anatomy of the Spirit which refers to patterns of emotional stresses and their physical manifestations.
Just to note though – this is not intended as a reductionist exercise – I’m not suggesting (for example) that if someone has a neck pain then that they must be suppressing anger at a female relative. That would be silly. Each person’s character structure, as defined in Jungian pyschological terms, history and attitude is different. What I am saying though, is that there are some correlations between muscular tension or holding patterns in the body and certain traumatic experiences and the way a human body stores that emotion.
I’ll just use three examples of common muscular tensions – neck pain, lower back pain and foot/leg pain.
Fight or Flight - or Freeze.
Most of us have been traumatized in modern life. By trauma I don’t necessarily mean something life threatening or violent – it could be anything that causes stress – family expectations, work conditions, accidents or falls, sudden loss, an argument with someone, a childhood memory.
Peter Levine, in his book on healing trauma talks of the science of reptilian brains and the limbic brains of mammals, noting that our mammalian brains still retain the reptile in our instinctive defensive strategies – we typically respond to threatening stimuli through flight, fight or freeze. The freezing response is where an emotional or anxious state, or the energy of fear- is frozen in the body. In humans, this energy can remain trapped for months and years, and the muscular holding defense patterns typical in the ‘frozen’ area, can give a person chronic neck and back pain, migraines, gastrointestinal disorders, bronchitis and legs and foot problem (to name a few).
Pain in the Neck
My friend Margaret said to me last week – “I just woke up with excruciating pain in my neck”. The day before Margaret had had a huge argument with a relative, who was particularly nasty to her, and Margaret ended up saying that she never wanted to see this person or have any contact with her again.
My work colleague Angus looked terrible that morning when he came into the office – he said – “when I woke up I was ok – then a slight turn and my neck was out completely. It’s so painful I can’t turn my head”. The day before, a meeting from the head of department for our workplace was called for the following Monday. There had been much discussion about whether she was coming to announce whether the office would be closed down. Angus wasn’t the only person in the office to have a muscle spasm that day – no less than 5 people on my floor came in with muscular problems: shoulder pain, middle back pain, lower back pain and neck problems.
Many people have neck tension and pain, especially if they use computers a fair bit – occupational overuse and incorrect posture can lead directly to muscular pain. For myself, muscular pain in my neck due to sitting in front of a computer is a clear signal to me that I am not balanced – all my energy focused on a mental task – energy to the body is blocked and the result is muscle strain. (So in this case it would be a clear signal to me to get up and walk around, stretch, breathe deeply, do those neck excercises that you’re supposed to do).
However when someone says to me that their neck has suddenly ‘gone out’ or they can’t move their neck at all without a lot of pain – that’s a signal to me that there is usually something else going on in their lives.
Ken Dychtwald describes the neck as the major channel through which the brain communicates to the rest of the body – consistently mediating between feelings (the heart and body) and rational thoughts (the mind). Tension in the neck area then relates to an overload of responsibilities, especially if the matter involves a head vs heart issue, and communication.
The point where the head meets the neck and the neck meets the shoulders, is often the site of tension in the body due to withholding emotion, and particularly the holding against the expression of feeling, for fear that this emotion would be unacceptable to others.
Chronic neck tension can also be used to block feelings from entering the decision function of the brain. Blocked feelings are a way of controlling the self, and placing the rational self in charge. Some of my massage patients come in with a neck a hard as a brick – and accompanying this is usually clenched jaw, tight shoulders. These patients get such relief from face and neck massage – you can see their whole controlled expression and being melting once more into feeling – and balance.
Alexander Lowen also describes this area the zone of voluntary and involuntary control – in the sense of the part of the throat which one has control over when eating and swallowing, vs the oesophagus, where conscious control is lost. That has some relation to eating disorders – comfort eating vs anorexia – the borders between control and non-control, emotion and holding in of emotion.
So for Margaret and Angus, you can see how their neck pain might relate to the immediate stress in their lives. For both these people, the neck is where they first feel stress – the first point to collapse. There might be other things going on in their lives, more profound , that might contribute to the chronic tension in their neck – with that one event being the tipping point. In other people, it might be their back that’s first to go, or their feet. It depends on the person, where they hold their tension, their history, what the issue is etc. It could be the build-up of a few issues, or one big issue that causes the ‘break’ or the pain.
Back to the future
Lower back pain is often directly caused by stress. Although anyone could point to an event or cause for lower back pain – such as lifting something the wrong way – Alexander Lowen says we should look at what postural tension or holding pattern makes someone vulnerable to lower back problems in the first place. He says, the lower back is where two types of pressure meet to create a stress in that region – gravity and emotional demands which act on a person – authority, duty, guilt – and the other is the upward force that supports the person through their erect posture and psychologically, how they are standing up to the demands placed on them.
A friend of mine, Mark, is working a regular job and trying to save enough money to buy a house for his growing family. His father is a critical man, who has a habit of comparing him to other people’s children who always seem to be doing much better – better children, better jobs, better houses – why can’t you be more like them. Mark has over the years been suddenly immobilized by painful spasms in his lower back. Occasionally his wife suffers exactly the same pain! Lowen says that a type of stress that might manifest in the lower back is one where we force ourselves to stand up to stressful situations – involving success and achievement, getting to the top – feelings that are held in our bodies in a muscular tension that cannot be sustained. Fear of failure is an added stress which affects how we hold ourselves – rigid and unbending. There is often also an accompanying fear of pain and this too becomes part of the body defence that contributes to the tension in that area. Emotional situations that have been linked to lower back issues include:
• An open conflict of wills – a holding against yielding or giving in, which has a further effect of holding against needing or loving;
• Conflicted thoughts about doing something, but under pressure to do it;
• Compulsive actions, rigidity and inflexibility in attitude; and
• The fear of breaking down, humiliation, failure.
Dychtwald says that tension is this area is also related to how much a person over-structures and over-controls his life – and that tension between an overly rigid upper back and tight pelvis can also cause pain and soreness in the lower back region.
These boots weren’t made for walking
One of my colleagues at work recently broke some toes of her foot, right before she was to sign the documents for her first mortgage. She frequently spoke of her nervousness of borrowing this amount of money, and feared being responsible for paying off the debt. Another friend recently spoke of her fears about marriage and commitment because of a relationship she was currently in was becoming serious – and shortly thereafter appeared with a walking stick and a sore foot which lasted many months.
In Bodymind, Ken Dychtwald refers to the feet as indicating the “chronic stance and attitude that a person assumes in order to comfortably meet the challenges in his life”. He points to three main ways that people ‘walk’ through life.
People with habitual feet that clutch the ground – toes curled under (to see if you do this, have someone push you in the chest slightly to make you fall over – see what your feet do) often have muscles in the feet that become chronically tense and rigid and susceptible to injury. Sometimes this is related to unresolved emotional crises in the past where the urge to flee hasn’t been acted upon, creating locked, tense muscles.
People who put their weight on their heels express an exaggerated feeling of determination, a false sense of stability. They appear strong and determined may still have deep feelings of anxiety and fear.
A flat foot indicates and ungrounded way of relating to the world, always sliding on the surface, not putting down roots or staying in a relationship – they tend to keep moving.
Carolyn Myss in Anatomy of the Spirit also talks about the connections between honour, and where we hold tension in the legs and feet. Without honour, she says, it’s difficult for a person to stand up for himself with pride and dignity. She talks about the link between honour, feet and legs and bonding with the family, and she uses the example of the tribal tradition of marriage. The connection between parental expectations, marriage and children vs fear of moving forward, of breaking the spoken or unspoken code of honour, is prevalent in people with foot and leg muscular tension.
Help, I need somebody
So how does knowledge of our patterns of holding fear or stress in the body help us? Bringing awareness to the source of the muscular tension and focusing on the areas that are ‘frozen’ – can bring the unconscious stress emotions to the surface, where they can be expressed, and then you can work on resolving the issues or fear that is causing the reoccurring pain.
As long as you keep telling yourself, oh I hurt my foot from wearing ill- fitting shoes, or I slept badly that’s why my neck is out – you will not be assisting the healing process for yourself. If you are afraid to sense or perceive your feelings: fear, rage, or despair, you will suppress them by developing chronic muscular tensions that do not allow any flow of energy or consciousness to the issue.
Some exercises – bioenergetics, rolfing or physiotherapy based can help relieve the symptoms and along with massage – can also bring the accompanying emotions to the surface. Try to sit with the emotion, fully experience it and where it is manifesting in your body. Listen to your body and try to work out why or what put you in a fearful frozen state and then, the next time when you are in a similar situation, express yourself, cry, rage, laugh hysterically, breathe deeply, give yourself positive affirmations, engage the help of a therapist or talk to a friend about it – anything to acknowledge and unravel your emotion and fear will help you to not manifest the emotion as pain or injury.
Recognising the psychological patterns and fears that drive your actions and behaviours is the first step to healing and is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, others and the world.
Next time: The Psoas muscle – the mysterious storehouse of neurotic emotion.