This article is the second of two parts, looking at the special role of the psoas muscle in recovering from pain, stress and trauma. You can read the first part here, which looks at the structural role of the psoas in our bodies, as well as its role in our stress and fear responses. I describe there how the psoas gets stuck and shortened through sitting for many hours, and what kind of physical effects this can have on a body. I also looked at how being locked in a stressful lifestyle produces the same effect, since we are not so able to switch from the alert state of our stress/fear responses (where the psoas is tensed) into a relaxed state, and I talked about how the over-tensed psoas plays a role in keeping people in a stressed and anxious way of being. In this part, we’ll look at the psoas in terms of old fears and traumas, and at releasing the psoas.
Old fears and trauma
The psoas doesn’t only stay tensed by being in a busy, stressful lifestyle, but is also routed in much older experiences that were stressful or scary. When you experienced frightening, unpredictable or traumatic events or periods earlier on in your life, the SNS and psoas were activated. This includes situations that were psychologically stressful or threatening, as well as physically threatening.
Ideally, when a fearful situation is over and a person is safe to relax again, the PSNS would return systems to normal. After animals have experienced a fearful situation, such as being chased, they actually stand and shake for a few minutes. This seems to be part of completing or finishing the fearful experience, so that a normal state can be returned to and life can go on as before. Some therapists postulate that these responses exist in humans too – you must have noticed yourself feeling shaky or wobbly when your were afraid sometimes. The logic, then, is that if we can go through this shaking process, releasing the excess charge or energy that has built up in our muscles, then we are able to recover both physically and psychologically from traumatic events.
For various reasons, many people do not complete fearful or traumatic experiences. Again, this is partly cultural: we’re not supposed to show that we’re afraid. Busy lives mean that, in general, we massively underuse our parasympathetic nervous system, and so our ability to switch between SNS and PSNS is weakened, meaning that our ability to use the PSNS as a way to recover from traumatic experiences is also very poor.
Early life experience also plays a huge role in a person’s ability to complete fearful/stressful experiences. This could include if there was never a situation of feeling safe and secure enough to relax, as in a long-term abusive situation. It could also include someone’s emotional and physical needs not having been adequately responded to when they were small, so that they learnt to hide or supress their feelings, or to keep them buzzing just below the surface, ready to grab the moment when someone might pay attention to them. Another way of phrasing this is that someone never learned how to regulate their own fear and stress responses.
If the stress or fear from a particular time was never really finished, the psoas didn’t ever fully let go. We’ve seen that a tightened psoas creates feedback that there is a danger situation, thus triggering the fear and stress responses to stay switched on. In effect, not completing the fearful experience can make it feel as if the situation is still going on, as if we’re still somehow in danger and need to be ready to spring at any moment. It’s as if you’re carrying the situation around with you, or as if the fear is somehow “locked” into the psoas. It’s locked into other places too, but the psoas is a pretty big reservoir of old feelings, and this is why it’s so important in trauma therapy.
Tapping into the magic muscle
Learning to release the psoas has an effect on both of the aspects we’ve considered: the structural system where a tight psoas creates pains, shallow breathing, and affects digestion; and also the fear/stress system, where a tight psoas gives the message that danger is still there and keeps those responses going.
Relaxing or lengthening the psoas can help to alleviate all of those pains mentioned – knees, back, shoulders – and to reduce conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. Because it changes the position of your pelvis, effectively letting your tail bone drop down, relaxing this places tends to make people feel more stable and grounded, literally by feeling the connection to your legs, heels and the ground. It’s a position that also feels more confident: instead of being alert and ready to spring, you’re relaxed, letting your weight drop all the way through your body. Many people feel an incredible sense of peaceful relaxation through releasing the psoas, as if all is somehow well in their place in the world, and as if they are more connected to the world around them. It’s a pretty magical muscle.
Learning to release the psoas is not just about physically releasing tension; it can also be a way of reducing anxiety and recovering from trauma. This isn’t just plain-sailing though. Some people might go directly to the peaceful/connected state, but for many people it triggers old feelings to come up: often being afraid, helpless, exposed, vulnerable to being hurt. The experience is as if old feelings have been stored in this place, strange as that might sound. How this actually happens on a physiological level is utterly mind-boggling.
Unsurprisingly, those feelings can trigger those unconscious responses of your body to defend, curl up, or be ready to fight, and body therapists working with this area need to know how to guide someone not to get stuck in those reactions. When a person manages to let those feelings be there, like riding waves that flow through you, then at a certain point they shift and change into a state like the relaxed one I described above. It’s a bit like draining the stresses or anxieties that we’ve been carrying around with us. And only after this comes the ability to more deeply relax.
Of course it’s also important to process our old patterns and traumas on a conscious level with our fantastically smart minds. But this physiological element of the fear/stress responses is controlled by a deeper part of your brain that the fancy conscious one, and until this has been dealt with, the work of conscious reasoning only has a limited effect.
Releasing the psoas
So hopefully at this point you’re motivated to get to know your psoas a little bit, and to see what might happen if you can learn to release it. Here are some ideas:
Diaphragmatic breathing can help to relax the psoas and stimulate the vagus nerve, which puts you more into the PSNS rest-and-digest system. This means breathing not just up into the upper part of your chest, but expanding the diaphragm and ribs, enabling a much deeper breathe. There are many breathing techniques that help with this. One is to breathe in to a count of 7, hold your breathe to a count of 4, and breathe out to a count of 6. Do this for 5 minutes and you should notice feeling a lot calmer. I find it helpful to put my hands on the base of my ribs and try to breathe out to the sides, as if I’m trying to push against my hands with my breath.
2: attention and awareness
I mentioned that most people have little attention for their psoas and so can’t feel if its tensed or not. This is something that you can change through exercises in body attention or somatic awareness. Becoming aware of whether it is tense or not is the first stage in gaining control over this tension. Here’s a nice article on how to feel (by tensing) and stretch the psoas.
Some bodyworkers or body therapists are trained in using touch to help you release the psoas. I also combine this with teaching my clients to intentionally tense and let go of this place, which again teaches you to gain more attention and control of that area. When working with touch, it’s incredibly important that the practitioner is experienced in holding a space for the emotions that come up and guiding someone through this process.
The body is made up of pairs of muscles working antagonistically against one another: think of the way your biceps and triceps work against each other to pull and push with your arms, for example. Another way to stop one muscle being over-shortened, is to strengthen its opposite muscle, which pulls you back into balance. The psoas is unusual in that it doesn’t have an exact antagonist, but the closest thing is the ass muscles. You can strengthen these by squats, leg lifts to the back (either standing or on all fours), and by standing on your heels and walking on the spot like that.
5. shaking: tension and trauma releasing exercises (TRE)
I mentioned that shaking or trembling is part of the body’s way of returning to a normal state after a fearful experience by discharging excess energy. David Bercelli’s tension/trauma releasing exercises (TRE) aim to stimulate this shaking/trembling to be produced by the body and so to release the psoas. Have a look at this video from David Bercelli. Involuntary trembling also often happens in my body therapy sessions.
6: yoga and stretching
Yoga also offers a range of postures for opening the hips and relaxing the psoas. Here’s one nice yoga routine that’s designed especially for reducing back pain. And here’s an article from Liz Koch, who’s a kind of psoas expert, on stretches to release the psoas.