These days instead of a monkey on our backs – it’s more like an elephant! Emotional stress is all around us. We hear it all the time, “I’m so stressed out – my neck is killing me!” or “My in-laws are in town and my back is acting up again!”. But how does this really happen? How does emotion or stress create pain? While we don’t have the complete picture on how this happens, a piece of the puzzle may be the fascia.
Fascia is like a web of tissue in our bodies that surrounds and binds together our muscles, tendons, bones and just about every other structure. Fascia tends to have patterns to it, like highways, that connect say our feet to our head. It’s made up of a type of cell called fibroblasts. There is a certain type of fibroblast, called myofibroblasts, that are laid down in areas of more wear and tear in our bodies. One well-known concentration of myofibroblasts is in the fascia of the lower back area called the thoracolumbar fascia.
Myofibroblasts can contract (myo- relates to muscle) – just like a muscle. Their contraction however is a direct response to chemicals circulating in our bodies as opposed to nerve signals causing them to contract, as is the case with muscles. One of these molecules is called Transforming Growth Factor-β1 (TGF-β1) and is secreted by our immune system.
A trigger for the release of TGF-β1 is activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—our fight or flight nervous system . Its role is to help us deal with threats, whether physical or emotional. In prehistoric times this system helped us fight off saber-toothed tigers and other predators but now we have different, more long-lasting threats like working at a hostile job or meeting an important deadline. Our SNS then kicks in for much longer periods of time. There are a host of internal processes that occur as a result of SNS activation that affect every major system in our bodies.
Once we are threatened or under stress, our SNS becomes stimulated, causing the release of TGF-β1 which then triggers myofibroblasts to contract. Remember myofibroblasts are laid down in areas of mechanical stress (joints, the spine, etc) so those areas will be most prone to this type of contraction. The back and neck are potential areas of great mechanical stress for a variety of reasons and so these may contain higher concentrations of myofibroblasts than other areas of the body. This would make them more prone to fascial contraction due to stress.
There are a few different ways then we can approach this problem of emotionally created pain. One is to remove the stressors from our lives. This is always good to work on however new stressors will continue to present themselves. We can also change our reactions to stressors so they don’t cause our SNS to engage so easily. Here are 5 techniques to help modify your behavior:
1. Practice Deep Breathing. Studies show that just focusing on the breath for 5 minutes can change your reaction or attitude.
2. Learn EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), also known as tapping. This combination of psychology and acupressure points can give you relief from pain – physical or emotional -sometimes within just minutes.
3. Meditation. Take up a daily meditation practice. Just 15 minutes a day can make a huge different in how you navigate through your day.
4. Practice Yoga. Since yoga combines breathing, movement and some meditative aspects a daily practice can have a profound effect on the SNS.
5. Try Tai Chi. Tai Chi involves slow, gentle movements, deep breathing, and meditation – all excellent ways to lower your stress level and the release of TGF-β1.
Another approach is to fix the areas of mechanical stress. That way there are fewer areas to activate. This is where I come in as a physical therapist and where my books can help. I think the best approach is to work on both fronts. It’s not likely we’ll ever completely remove emotional stressors from our lives nor is it likely we’ll remove all mechanical stressors. But if we can reduce both even just a little then we have a great opportunity to live a pain free life that isn’t at the whims of our emotions.