During this stressful time, we are often assailed by fear and anxiety. Watching the news, reading the onslaught of on-line guidelines to limit exposure, considering financial insecurities, contemplating worries for the welfare of family and friends, dealing with kids at home and missing school – the list goes on. All these can trigger stress responses in our bodies.
Did you know that much of the feeling that we call “stress” in our bodies can be attributed to unconscious contraction or tension held in our muscles? When we’re stressed, hormones get released into the blood stream; our breathing becomes shallower and resides higher in our chest; our blood pressure rises; our moods shift, reflecting distress, worry, apprehension, even dread; and all this contributes to muscles tightening and contracting. Our neck and shoulder muscles may burn, our backs may cramp, our bellies may feel tied up in knots.
OMG! Can you relate to any (or all) of this???
How can we find attitudes and activities that calm, relax, renew and revitalize us?
Somatic movement done slowly and mindfully is a great antidote to the stress response – which is the sympathetic “fight or flight” state. Somatic movement with its unhurried, comfortable pace, is calming and meditative. In it we focus on the sensations of the movements we’re doing. Many people experience going into the parasympathetic “relax and restore, rest and digest” state quite soon after they start these slow, voluntary, leisurely movements.
Somatic movement, as we do it in our Gentle Somatic Yoga classes, has three parts. First you voluntarily contract a group of muscles; then you slowly and with control, de-contract those same muscles. Lastly, you release all muscle tension. The most important part of this three-part movement technique, called pandiculation, is the slow, gradual release out of the voluntary contraction to complete rest.
Movement done this way resets the resting tone of the muscles. That means excess muscular contraction, often labeled muscle tightness, tension, or stiffness, is reset to a lower level. The result is that your muscles actually hold less unconscious contraction or tension, and become more relaxed, have a greater range of motion, and have a longer resting length. The felt sense is one of relaxation. Breathing becomes easier, joints feel well-oiled, movement becomes more effortless, pain often disappears or lessens.
The physiology of pandiculation is complex. It involves the motor cortex of the brain, inhibition of muscle contraction, the resetting of muscular alpha-gamma coactivation, and the coordination of many parts of the motor system. It’s not necessary to understand all of this but I thought I’d mention it so you understand that, while it can sometimes seem almost magical, there is much science (neuroscience) behind it.
The result of somatic movement is important to boost our immunity. As our muscles relax, we relax: burning in the neck-shoulders recedes, our backs and bellies unwind, our jaw unclenches, our shoulders descend away from our ears, our limbs loosen up, our breathing eases. We feel better.
As we relax our mood improves, and we’re more likely to trigger “feel-good” hormones. The anticipation of feeling better rewards us with the release of dopamine which stimulates pleasure-seeking behavior. Serotonin, the “happy” hormone, boosts our mood. Oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, increases sociality, trust, and intimacy in our relationships.
We have two strategies to reduce our risk to the coronavirus virus. Of course, doing what we can to avoid getting it like social distancing, hand washing… And we also can do what we can to boost our immune system.
Let’s do both to the best of our ability. Reduce our exposure and strengthen our immune system.
Do your somatic movements often. Take calming breaths throughout the day. Chose to boost your immunity with these gentle, relaxing movements.
Try it out and comment below on your experience. Even though it’s designed to release that lower part of your body, did you notice it also relaxed your whole nervous system?