Bodywork Therapies – Mind-Body Connection
In a classic Charlie Brown cartoon, Charlie stands in a slumped position with his chin on his chest. He says to one of his friends, “This is how you have to stand when you are depressed.” There is much truth in Charlie’s words, because we judge people’s body language all the time. If someone carries himself or herself in a dejected, “depressed” way, or in an anxious, apprehensive manner, or with an aggressive, angry posture – our instant judgement picks up on their current emotional state. Emotion changes our posture, even our breathing. If prolonged or repetitive, the adaptation to such changes then leads on to new symptoms.
Long-held psychological states, and repressed, unspoken emotions, such as anger and fear, can become stored (somatised) in the body. This creates a virtual armour of tension in the muscles, with consequent changes in joint and general bodily function.
“Unclenching the fist”
The osteopath Philip Latey offers a perspective on the way emotions become expressed as muscle tension in his metaphor for the different physical responses to emotional distress. He describes three key areas of the body, and the tensions in them, as the “upper fist” (head/neck area), the “middle fist” (chest area) and the “lower fist” (pelvic area). The clenched fist neatly gives an image of the tense, tight muscles of these areas, as well as the effect of release, as the fist slowly unclenches.
A question raised by Latey’s work is worth considering: if the most appropriate response an individual makes is to “lock away” emotions into their musculoskeletal system, is it advisable to unlock the body and release the emotions which the tensions and contractions hold? It may well be that psychotherapy or counselling, in conjunction with appropriate bodywork, offers the best solution to “unclenching the fist”, so that emotional and structural changes can occur simultaneously.
Stress and different muscle groups
One research study confirmed that specific emotions seem to affect particular muscle groups more than others. For example, the main muscles affected in agitated people are on the back of the arms; depressed individuals showed greatest activity in the sheet of muscle on the forehead (the frontalis). Another study found that careful physical examination failed in many instances to find a cause for patients’ pain. There was, however, a correlation between anger and pain in the neck, between fear and abdominal pain and between sorrow or despair and low back pain. In patients with these correlations it was rare for an organic cause to be found, even after extensive investigation.
Another study used electromyography to evaluate the effect that stress-inducing mental exercises had on different parts of neck and shoulder muscles. When a person was intellectually stressed and anxious, type 1 muscle fibres (which are prone to shorten when stressed) became over¬active. These fibres, when repeatedly activated through stressful emotions, may eventually respond with a “metabolic crisis” that produces trigger points.
Emotion and psychological well-being, therefore, are key factors that influence how the musculoskeletal system behaves. At the same time, the state and functionality of the musculoskeletal system has an impact on how we experience ourselves and express our emotions.