The Psoas and Chronic Stress/ Trauma

Muscle of Survival

Our Psoas Muscle is known as the “fight-flight” muscle. As you can see in the picture below- the Psoas connects our lumbar spine to our inner thighs by running through our hip joint. The connection between our back and our legs enables us to run and kick. These are the two primary functions that we need in “fight-flight” mode (hence the name!)

When our nervous system senses that we are in danger it alerts our Psoas to fire up. This enables us to be ready to run away from a lion that is chasing us, or to fight off another predator that may be more of our match. The neural connection between our brain and our muscles is a two way street. Just as the brain tells the Psoas to fire up; when the Psoas is in flexion it is sending neural messages to the brain saying “we are in danger and are going to need some support!” When the brain gets this message from our tense muscles our nervous fires out cortisol and adrenalin needed to preserve our life.

Obviously our Psoas is pretty significant when it comes to survival. (it is also a primary muscle involved in our stability and balance) .

The Stressed Psoas

The issue when we are dealing with chronic stress or trauma is that our Psoas is often in a constant state of flexion (activation).

When we have experienced chronic stress or trauma our nervous system is hyper-vigilant. Our brain and our muscles are in a constant state of ready, or even activation, in order to help us survive. Our nervous system does not have a rational way of thinking. It does not know how to differentiate the stress of traffic, cityscapes, or uncomfortable e-mails from a bear that is about to eat us. It only knows how to say “let’s get out of here!!” or “it’s oooookay to chill out….” Both of which occurs at an unconscious level in a fraction of a second.

Trauma research shows us that our physiology is impacted just as much as (if not more than) our psychology through stress and adverse experiences.

How do you know if you have a tight Psoas?

  • Do you sit more hours in a day then you spend moving around?

  • Have you ever experienced stressful events in life (be them extreme events such as the loss of a loved one or a car accident or seemingly less significant like the loss of a friendship or a fight with a spouse?)

  • Do you often have lower back pain?

  • Do you often find yourself feeling anxious, agitated, or frustrated?

If you have answered yes to any of the questions above there is a potential that you have a tight Psoas. This muscle can be impacted by any of these events. It can also impact our mood and emotional wellbeing due to the neural firings that occur when our Psoas is tight.

So what does it matter?

So why am I talking about the Psoas and how it is impacted by trauma?

Well… our Psoas muscle can serve as a litmus test for the rest of our body. When our Psoas is in a state of relaxation and rest- typically so is the rest of our body. And when our Psoas is tight and flexed- so is the rest of our body! This can produce an excess of cortisol and adrenal in our system which can lead to a myriad of stress-related health disorders including adrenal fatigue.

Our Psoas muscle is also correlated with our Diaphragm, which one of our main muscles responsible for breathing (see diagram below). As you can see the Diaphragm and the Psoas connect along the same vertebrae in the lower spine- so when the Psoas is tight we are unable to fully extend our Diaphragm. This means we aren’t able to take a full breath! When we are taking short, shallow breaths as opposed to long, slow breaths our body is in a constant state of Sympathetic Arousal (fight-flight). We cannot have both our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic (rest-digest) systems firing at the same time, and when our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is offline than we are unable to properly digest and absorb our food nutrients, our immune system is not going to be functioning at an optimal level, and we will have impaired ability to produce fresh blood cells…among many other general health functions that occur through our PNS.

A tight Psoas muscle can mean that our overall health and wellbeing is impaired.

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

What to do about it?

This good news is that we don’t have to be in a chronic state of fight-flight mode! The key is learning to listen to and respond to what our body is telling us. If your Psoas is tight (or if you have lower back pain as a potential symptom of a tight Psoas) here are some things you can do:

  • Stretch! Few things are as good on the body as stretching. Stretching should NEVER be about forcing your body into contortions. It is about getting into postures that feel slightly uncomfortable due to muscle tension and teaching your body to surrender and relax INTO the stretch.

  • Talk to a mental health counselor. Remember that the mind and the body is a two way street? Perhaps your Psoas is tight because of unconscious stresses in your life. These stressors may be scary or risky to face on your own. Talking to a professional who can help you listen to the language of your body and find out if there are circumstances or relationships you need to adjust in order for your body to be at rest is an invaluable investment!

  • Shake: Bear with me on this one- I know it may sound crazy. But one of the most amazing things we can do for our body (and one thing we almost never do) is to shake. Literally. Lay on your back and shake your head, arms, legs, and hips (paying special attention to your psoas). This can release extra energy and tension held in your viscera and nervous system so that your body can achieve a new state of relaxation.

  • Rest! After stretching and/or shaking allow yourself to lay on your back with arms by your side (palms up) and legs down with feet hanging open. If that is uncomfortable for your lower back you can bend your knees and put your feet on the floor with your knees together. Close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breath. Don’t have your phone or other distracting devices with you. Maybe play some calming instrumental music, and just be. See if you can slow down and increase your breath by focusing on your belly and chest raising with your inhale. This is giving your body the experience of resting and can help shift you into your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

Thanks for reading!