One of my first introductions to the power of the mind-body connection was through a set of muscles called the ‘psoas’. These are the muscles that attach our lumbar spine to the legs. They’re often called the ‘fight or flight muscles’ since they are a first responder to conditions of threat, allowing us to high kick, bring our knee towards our stomach in defense–or run.
Several years ago, I was in a traumatic relationship with a man with all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Although the relationship only lasted a few months, the experience had left me terribly depressed and anxious and my self-confidence in tatters.
As I gradually gained the strength to end the relationship, something very strange happened to the tops of my inner thighs. They began to throb with a kind of pain I had never before experienced. I hadn’t done any demanding exercise to explain it, but it felt as if these muscles had been massively over-worked. It felt incredibly uncomfortable, like a cry for help that I didn’t understand. It was particularly concentrated in the dip below my hips, half a finger length towards the pubic bone, which later, when I became more familiar with anatomy, I learned was exactly where the psoas muscles connect with the tops of the thighs across the hips. No matter whether I was sitting, walking or lying down, this part of my body kept on screaming as if for attention. The feeling was like being trapped in burning building without begin able to find the EXIT. I listened to calming music on Youtube, tried to meditate (impossible!) and went for walks by the sea. Probably the latter helped more than anything else, but what I actually needed was not so much to calm down but to RELEASE the huge stores of built-up tension as I had continually ignored my body’s signals to remove myself from the abuse.
What I didn’t know then was that my psoas muscles had become trapped in a chronic sympathetic nervous system response. They were communicating something very important to me. GET AWAY. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to release this trauma response much more effectively and saved myself days of agony. (Literally running would also have helped but I’m a lousy runner and I generally end up injuring myself).
The psoas muscles are engaging when our legs quiver or shake during an episode that we experience as threatening. Those of us who have had to work to overcome a fear of public speaking know what it’s like to stand with fight or flight neurohormones flooding our system with a neuro-chemical scream of “run!! while we are forced through external pressures to continue to stand still. The audience members may not look like saber-toothed tigers, but this is how our nervous system is experiencing them. Our psoas muscles tense, sending neural signals to our brain to gear us up for a motivated response to a threat to our safety. Our brain responds by sending cortisol and adrenalin to help us to mobilize away from the threat (flight) or towards it (fight).
When we don’t move in response to the brain’s SOS signals our legs can begin to shake uncontrollably, because our bodies are trying to discharge excess energy that is not being discharged through mobility. Although this can feel embarrassing, it is actually our body’s way of protecting us. What happens this protection protocol fails i.e., when faced with a perceive threat we can’t expel this urge for motility, this energy becomes trapped as emotional tension. The psoas muscles are a prime target for this tension to reside since it is the psoas muscles that recruit the movement that signals to the nervous system that we are responding to the perceived threat. When the nervous system doesn’t receive this message, it continues to put out a cocktail of sympathetic system chemicals that keeps our body’s on high alert. This becomes quickly exhausting, physically and mentally, since we will certainly sense this tension psychologically as a dis-ease, a relentless and deeply embedded anxiety.
I wish I had known two things while lying in bed with my psoas muscle chain on red alert but without much of a clue how to calm myself. One is TRE or Trauma Release Exercises and the other is what Marlysa Sullivan, assistant professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health calls “constructive rest”. It’s a term first introduced by Mabel Todd in 1937 in her book, The Thinking Body. Sullivan describes constructive rest as ‘…a position of complete rest in which the spine is relieved of the weight of the arms and legs, and the major joints are free to release into gravity and fall into rest. The goal is to distribute the weight of the body so that no work is required in order to maintain equilibrium.’
If we feel tension in our psoas muscles, it’s logical to think that we need to stretch it more, but this isn’t necessarily helpful and can cause a counter-tension to occur. Sometimes we need to encourage the psoas to relax and release by creating an open resting space around it. Lying on the back with a folded blanket under the shoulders, legs elevated, perhaps up on a couch, a couple of bolsters or a deep-seated chair is one such position.
TRE followed by a position of constructive rest is a very effective way to relieve tension.
I like Charlie Maginness’ explanation but your can run a search and find a session that works for your temperament. Some people call it Tension Release Exercises because not everyone identifies with the word ‘trauma’. It looks far more dramatic than it feels. Most people find that TRE feels very natural and is not frightening at all. On the contrary, it feels oddly soothing. Having said that, it is of course possible that someone might experience anxiety with this practice, so take it slowly and stop and take breaks if you need to. Or if it seems like too much right now, simply put it aside for another time. I would recommend watching this video a couple of times before trying it yourself. One thing that Charlie Maginness leave out is the TRE ‘break’ which allows you to stop the tension release shaking by straightening your legs and pointing your toes. I will be doing my own video on this topic soon, but in the meantime if you’re feeling stable and curious I recommend you give it a go. Just be gentle with yourself and don’t overdo it.
You might find, like me, that you want to lie down for a while afterwards in bed or on a couch. When I’m going through a period of restless sleep, I find it helpful to do these exercises just before bedtime.