Barb saw the truck in the rear-view mirror and braced. Her hands gripped the wheel, every muscle in her body was tense when the truck hit. After three months, those muscles still haven’t let go-she feels a stiffness or tightness that no amount of stretching eliminates.
When Barb saw the headlights, her nervous system’s natural response was to increase muscle tension in order to control motion. She experienced a whole-body maximum contraction. Though Barb’s muscle tension is not a whole-body response now, her back is always in spasm. Persistent muscle contractions are the over-reaction of a protective mechanism that allows us to prepare to fight or flee, or to protect vital organs (imagine bracing if you are about to experience a punch to the gut).
It’s natural and healthy to protect yourself when you are threatened. The problem arises when your nervous system fails to return to a state of rest when the threat is gone. That’s how we end up feeling tight and stiff. Right now, with everyone on edge, many of us are feeling the effects of an unregulated nervous system. But here’s some good news. You can give your nervous system feedback. As Lisa Feldman-Barrett has shown, our experience of stress is constructed by cues our body gives our brain. So, one way to de-stress and relax the nervous system is to work through the body. If we learn to relax our muscles, our nervous system can stand down.
Ideally nervous systems should be adaptable and flexible. They should respond to a threat in the moment and then recover, repair, and relax when danger has passed. Certain exercises that require maximum attention and minimal effort allow you to move without triggering habitual protective responses. When movement is efficient, your nervous system gradually learns to relax.
The exercise demonstrated in the video helps you focus on interoception-the sense of the internal state of your body. This exercise would help Barb relax the residual nervous system protective responses left over from her accident.
With increased interoception, muscles can respond without protecting. This is an exercise we could return to several times a week because, in our current environment, we all need ways to relax and restore equilibrium. Right now, the sense of threat is constant, and it’s affecting all of us. It helps to have an exercise to reset the nervous system and increase awareness of unnecessary protective responses.
If this alone is not enough to manage your pain or relax your brain, please know that we are here to help. We can provide assistance at a distance with Telehealth, or visits in our clinic. If you have questions, please email or call your therapist. We are happy to problem solve with you about the best way to get you feeling better.