In addition to doing bodywork, I have also been a professional health writer and editor for many years. Now I’m putting my writing to work for you. Here I’ll explore common issues I see in my practice and offer practical tools you can apply to your life. Enjoy!
Let me ask you this: Do you find it hard to relax? Maybe you feel worried or anxious a lot. Maybe your neck and shoulders always feel tight. Or you always have to be doing something—it’s hard to just sit and relax.
If those issues ring a bell, how about these: Would you say your digestion and elimination are great? How about your sleep, do you usually sleep well? And your energy? Are you bursting with vim and vigor or do you feel worn out a lot?
If you didn’t fare too well with those questions, your body is trying to tell you something. You’re likely pretty stressed. Many people have no idea how stressed out and overstimulated they are. The signs may creep up…or feel so familiar you don’t recognize them as problems. What do I mean by an overstimulated nervous system?
Let’s start with your autonomic nervous system. It controls all of the bodily processes not under your conscious control, things like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. And it’s divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. You may know these as your fight or flight and rest and digest systems.
Fight or flight helps protect you from danger. It gears you up to fight or run away from stressors. And it shunts blood away from systems that don’t help you do that—like digestion. Rest and digest is the return to equilibrium. It lets your body nourish, heal, and repair.
Normally, the body cycles fluidly between these two systems. But sometimes…we get stuck in fight or flight. It becomes the new set point. And over time, this can wear you down and make you sick.
So what causes all of this overstimulation? Many things…
- Chronic stressors: like illness, financial strains, grief, noisy neighbors
- Stimulants: caffeine, nicotine
- Electronic devices: blue light from electronic screens has a stimulating effect
- Stimuli of the modern world; like bright lights, loud sounds, graphic images
- Highly sensitive wiring: some people are extra sensitive to stimuli
- Trauma: trauma locks cycling fight-or-flight energy in the tissues
In this busy modern world, full of stressors that our caveman-era wiring never dreamed of, it’s easy to get overstimulated. So it’s a good idea to find ways to slow down and calm down. Nature works for me. Deep breathing, good sleep, and pottering with favorite hobbies work for most. What works for you?
Craniosacral therapy has been a lifesaver for my back. Without it, I’d be locked up and in pain. I’d likely need invasive treatments. And I certainly couldn’t do my job. But it’s been my own experience with a bulging disc that has taught me the most.
My spine has a long and storied history of problems….
At 19, as a stressed out college student, my neck went into spasm. So I went to see a chiropractor who took full spinal X-rays. (Not recommended, by the way.) And what I saw stunned me.
Signs of arthritis in my midback. Scoliosis in my low back. A slipped vertebrae. Things that were too straight. Things that were too curved. In shock, I accused the doc of mixing up my X-ray. I was nineteen.
From that time on, I was in and out of chiropractor’s offices—and other practitioners—dealing with hip pain, back pain, an unstable pelvis, a neck in spasm…you name it.
And all of those treatments helped for many years. Until they didn’t.
Because my treatments were always “fixing” the same problems. And the more my back got adjusted, the more inflamed it became. Until it could no longer tolerate adjustment.
That’s when I went to massage school and discovered craniosacral therapy. Massage gave me lovely pain relief. But cranio brought real change.
Craniosacral therapy involves gentle touch that releases bone and tissue restrictions in the skull, spine, pelvis, and whole body. It calms and resets the nervous system. And it stimulates the body’s self-healing ability.
My cranio treatments have stopped my neck going out, mobilized my midback, stabilized my hips, and relieved pressure on the disc below my slipped vertebrae. But the true test came this year when a bulging disc began pressing on a bladder nerve.
This was serious. But I didn’t panic.
I trusted cranio and my body’s treatment plan. And over time, my body has:
- Dumped heat to relieve inflammation
- Pulsed fluid into the joint space to get pressure off the disc
- Deactivated the overstimulated electrical charge along the nerve
- Released fascial strains reaching higher up the spine
- Released shock and terror held in the low back
- Repositioned sheared vertebrae to improve alignment
None of this has been fast. And all of it has required a commitment to healthy movement and postural exercises. But the pressure is off my nerve. The disc is healing. And my spinal alignment is slowly improving.
When was the last time you really had fun? The kind where you completely lost track of time, laughed your head off, or felt that inner surge of yes!
Been a while? You’re not alone.
As adults, we often forget to have fun. We can get so busy with the demands of life that we don’t make time for fun. Or we think having fun is trivial or an indulgence. It’s not. Fun fuels and renews you. It’s vital to your health—and to a rich and rewarding life.
Fun Is Great for You
Fun is an antidote to stress. Chronic stress is linked to muscle tension and a host of health problems—headaches, heart disease, and digestive problems just to start. Fun helps reset your brain’s stress response, switching it out of “fight or flight” and back to “rest and digest.”
Having fun also leads to laughing. And laughing is great for you. Laughter helps relieve stress, relax muscles, and boost endorphins, your brain’s feel-good chemicals. And if you make a habit of laughing? Over time it can help boost both mood and immunity.
Having More Fun
What’s fun for you may be entirely different from what’s fun for someone else. And unexpected things may be enjoyable. The important thing is to figure out what’s fun for you. Here’s how:
Let your body be the guide
Fun is something you feel in your body, not just think in your head. If you think you should be having fun at a party, but feel bored or stressed, that’s not fun. Fun brings a spontaneous smile to your lips. It may feel like melting relaxation, bubbling excitement, or spreading joy.
Start noticing what truly feels fun to you. If you’re not sure, make a list of things you enjoy and imagine yourself doing them. Notice which bring a true smile to your lips.
Mine your childhood
What did you love to do as a kid? What did you lose yourself in completely? The things you loved doing as a child are a great guide to what you actually find fun. Look for ways to work those things into your life now.
Fun doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. You can have fun petting your dog or accessorizing your outfit. It only matters that it lights you up inside.
You probably don’t think much about how you breathe. But the way you breathe can have a huge effect on your stress level. Which means you can use your breath as a tool to calm down.
When stressed, most people turn into chest breathers. They tense up and breathe shallowly from their chest, instead of deeply from their belly. This shallow breathing then tells the brain, “All is not well, keep being stressed!” It can become a vicious cycle.
If you’re chronically stressed, you’ve probably learned to chest breathe. So, even when you’re relaxed, you don’t breathe deeply. Chest breathing is fast, shallow, and jerky. It fills mainly the upper lungs. And it’s not good for you. During chest breathing:
- You take in less oxygen—which can trigger the stress response
- You breathe out less carbon dioxide—which can leave you sluggish
- Your neck and shoulders tense up—trying to help you breathe
Belly breathing, on the other hand, involves taking deep breaths from the belly. It works your diaphragm and fills your lungs fully. This is the way babies breathe. This is our natural way of breathing. And it’s good for you. Belly breathing:
- Triggers your body’s relaxation response
- Allows you to take in more oxygen and fully breathe out the carbon dioxide
- Lets your neck and shoulders stay loose
The next time you’re stressed, try this simple belly breathing technique to calm down:
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Rest one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose—notice your belly rise under your hand.
(The hand on your chest should stay still.)
- Breathe out through your mouth—notice your belly fall under your hand.
- Take two more deep breaths like this.
- Now just breathe naturally for a while, noticing your belly hand rising and falling.
- Notice when you start to feel calmer.
Simple, right? But powerful. If this exercise feels unnatural, you’ve probably learned to breathe from your chest. Practice it a few minutes a day to retrain your breathing.
After many years of using my own name for my practice, I decided it’s time my business got a name of its own. So I’m proud to introduce Conscious Soma, a practice focused on Craniosacral Therapy and other Somatic Bodywork that supports whole-person healing.
Soma means body. So, somatic literally means “of the body.” But when we’re talking about bodywork, these two terms have come to mean much more.
Soma refers to your own felt-sense of yourself. It’s your experience of your body as sensed from the inside, rather than the “idea” of a body as viewed from the outside.
Somatic bodywork, then, focuses on your inner perceptions and experience. These can include physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts, as well as your awareness of your body in space and any “null zones,” areas where you lack sensation or awareness.
When we pay attention, without judgment, to all of your inner perceptions in the moment, the body can tell the full story of an injury, pain, or problem. Often, this story has some surprising roots. And by acknowledging them, much deeper healing or transformation becomes possible.
Somatic bodywork deals with issues like:
- Trapped emotions: Suppressed emotions get stored in our tissues where they can cause physical problems. I’ve seen cases where tissue damage, such as arthritis, has had a trapped emotion at its core.
- Core beliefs: If you have a deeply held belief, say that you have to struggle for everything in life, it can literally shape your body. In this case, the muscles may tense up and take on a fighting stance, always ready to defend against the world.
- Guarding: Many clients I touch are muscle-guarded. No matter how long I work, their muscles stay tense. Why? Sometimes the tension is helping the client avoid feeling. Emotions aren’t just in our head. They are felt through the whole body. And muscle tension is a powerful way to suppress painful emotions.
- Loss of body awareness: When asked to focus on a body part—like the pelvis—some people will not be able to feel it from the inside unless it’s hurting. They’ve removed their awareness. The result is a disconnection—from themselves, the ground, or their own sense of power and purpose.
- Trauma: Like emotions, trauma is not just in the head. It’s held in the whole body and especially in the central nervous system. Trauma can cause chronic stress and anxiety, hypervigilance, muscle tension and a host of other bodily symptoms.
Somatic bodywork is a powerful way of bridging body and mind. Because ultimately, this thing we call “body” and this thing we call “mind” are a singular, exquisite intelligence, of which we can be more or less conscious. I vote for more.
If there’s one issue I see over and over in my practice, it’s back pain. Usually, it’s caused by some short-term, mechanical problem with the muscles or joints. Perhaps a muscle has been pulled. Or a tendon is inflamed. Nothing that won’t heal, but it sure hurts. Unfortunately, for many people this back pain becomes a recurring problem.
So, what sets you up for this type of pain? And what stirs it up or keeps it coming back? Here are some of the top culprits I see in my practice. Do any of them apply to you?
- Stress: Stress can play a huge role in back pain. Stress tightens up your muscles, which can make them sore and achy. And if there are other issues—like postural strains—stress can easily tip the balance into spasm and pain.
- Too much sitting. Prolonged sitting causes muscles in your back, hips, and thighs to tighten up. Over time, this puts pressure on your discs and can set up the muscles and joints to be easily injured by something like a poor movement.
- Lack of exercise: Without enough movement, joints and muscles stiffen, tissues don’t get enough blood flow, and muscles grow weak. If you’re a weekend warrior—sit all week, play hard on weekends—you’re especially prone to back injuries.
- Emotional pain: When you resist or suppress a painful emotion, it doesn’t go away. Your body stores it in your tissues. This keeps is out of your awareness, but it causes other problems, like chronic muscle tension and guarding.
- Postural problems: Poor posture puts incredible strains on your back and neck. For instance, you may not realize that those rounded shoulders are overstretching your low back and causing your back and hips to tighten up.
- Overuse & poor body mechanics: Muscle strains can happen suddenly, but many build over time. Repetitive motions like bending or swinging a hammer can slowly stretch and tear tissues, especially if you use poor body mechanics.
Did any of these culprits ring true for you? If so, you’ve probably already recognized some changes you could make to feel better. Stay tuned to future articles, too, where I’ll look at simple things you can do to defuse stress and tension before they become pain.