Friday, 12 April 2013

Psoas Muscles and Trauma Healing

shutterstock 309794093
In case you have never studied anatomics, you probably would not know it: the group of muscles called Psoas. They connect the upper torso with the pelvis and are located on the lower side of the back. They are responsible for a lot of tasks: Walking upright, even shoulders, position of the legs and the spine. We usually use them not only unconsciously, but we also notice tensions in that area only indirectly: They affect the diaphragm, are communicated to the torso and can cause pain in the upper back and the shoulder area.

The psoas muscles form a connection between breathing and body posture. This is illustrated by the fact that in our evolution, walking on the ground and breathing have developed at the same time. So exercising in a relaxed way with the psoas muscles leads to a more dynamic pelvis and a liberated breathing rhythm as well as to a stable grounded body feeling.

From the Tibetian tradition we learn that the psoas muscles are the ultimate source of the ego. Working with it, can confront with issues like clinging to something and fixation.

The interesting discovery of the body worker and trauma therapist David Berceli is that these muscles play an important role in storing as well as in healing trauma."The psoas muscles are considered the fight/flight muscles of the human species. These primitive muscles stand guard like sentinels protecting the center of gravity of the human body located just in front of the 3rd vertebrae of the sacrum (S3). These muscles connect the back with the pelvis and the legs. During any traumatic experience, the psoas muscles contract. To heal from physical trauma contractions, this deep set of muscles must let go of their protective tension and return to a relaxed state. It has been generally accepted that after particularly tens, stressing or traumatic experiences, people could get a massage, take a hot bath or do some exercises, and that will resolve their trauma and restore their body back to a healthy state. However, this is not the case when it comes to traumatic tension in the psoas muscles. The body’s ability to let go of the tension in these muscles has been diminished due to our socialization process.

It often is the case that contracted and even damaged psoas muscles create tremendous lower back pains. This is very common among sexual abuse survivors. What is often overlooked is when the psoas muscles contract and pull the body forward, they cause secondary muscle contractions as the body tries to compensate for this forward pull. The erector spinae muscles will also pull the body backwards in an attempt to keep it upright. These two opposite tensions will actually begin to compress the lumbar spine as they pull the lower vertebrae together, creating a spinal compression that can be damaging over a prolonged period of time. If held long enough in this tension, this pull will eventually cause secondary shoulder and neck pain as well. 

The diaphragm muscle also adds to the tension in this area. The psoas muscle overlaps the iliacus and diaphragm muscles along the spine. Together, they form a linking system of the torso, pelvis and legs. Since this is such a strategic area of protection, the largest number of sympathetic nerves (fight or flight nerves) are also found in this area of the body.
This trembling [of an animal after having survived intense danger] is the natural process of the body discharging the excess energy simultaneously as it is being created in the body.

As humans, we possess the same mechanism. However, to our detriment, we have inhibited or deadened it. As an example, when we get nervous or overexcited, we deliberately try not to shake so as not to appear weak or afraid. This ego control places the body and mind into a conflict. The body wants to shake to discharge the excess energy, but the mind refuses to let it do so. The mind usually wins and the body must then find another way of dealing with this hyper-aroused charge. The way it deals with it is by contracting the muscles and containing this excess charge. The muscles in the body contract and hold onto the excess charge until they are allowed to release it at a later time. If they do not get that opportunity, the contracted muscles then produce a chronic state of tension in the body. Herein lays one of the root causes of PTSD. If the muscles contracted during trauma do not release this high charge shortly after the trauma, they will continue to try to do so at a later date as a way of restoring the body to a restful state.

Post traumatic reactions are cause by the residual undischarged excitement generated in the time of the event. If this high state of aroused energy is prevented from being discharged in the body, it remains trapped in a bio-neural-physical loop that causes a repetition compulsion behavior. Until the body shakes out this tension, the body will continue to repeat this chronic tension pattern of protection and defense. A major component to a successful recovery from trauma is to activate the person’s natural release mechanism that signals the body to return to a state of rest and recuperation. 

For all humans, after the trauma is over, the nervous system should naturally activate itself and begin to shake out any residual chemicals or tension remaining from the traumatic episode. This shaking sends a signal to the brain informing it that the danger has subsided and it should turn off its alert status. If the nervous system does not activate itself, the body continues to remain in a kind of short circuit loop with the brain continuing to believe it is still in danger and therefore continuing to command the body to stay in a state of readiness and alert."

(David Berceli: Trauma Releasing Exercises. Book Sourge 2005, 14; 16)

Humans all around the globe react equally to traumatic experiences  - a neurologically caused shaking from light to strong, always starting with the legs, the lower back and the pelvis area. Special exercises developed by David Berceli first resolve the actual or chronic tensions in the psoas muscles, which we cannot command by will. So these exercises are designed to let the shaking come automatically from inside. Thus, the deeply stored tensions in the psoas muscles will open up and relax.

Further sources and information on exercises: