Almost everyone in our society shares the experience of tension, somewhere in the body, that either stays, or comes and goes, always in the same area. Thinking about this for any longer than a moment presents a burning question every time – “Why?” Why do I have to have this pain, this tension, why won’t it go away? I’m confronted with this frustration every day, in all the unique ways that different clients experience it at different times.
I landed in the business of resolving tension because I was not satisfied with resigning myself to chronic discomfort. Like so many people who come to see me, I knew something about it wasn’t right. I knew I could help myself out of the cycle, and that I could learn to help others as well.
So here and now, with my current understanding of our physiology, I want to sum up what I have learned regarding why we have chronic and recurring tension or pain. Having studied many avenues of treatment, and many explanations as to why said treatments are effective, I’m going to focus on the one area that I have found makes the most sense, experientially as well as on paper. From everything I’ve read and personally felt, the root and, ultimately, the solution to chronic tension lies in the nervous system. Whether I am doing techniques learned from the myofascial, energetic, deep tissue, Swedish massage, or any other standpoint, the nervous system is the primary focus both in the information I gather, and the changes I catalyze.
The human nervous system has developed astounding complexity, to the point that we can apply our minds to the most fundamental questions of existence, but most of the work it does is still quite basic. Every moment, all the time, as long as you live, the nervous system is continually asking and answering the same question: “Am I safe?” No matter how tough a person is, they are enabled to continue living for the fact that they have a nervous system that is constantly assessing threats of internal and external origin. Even those who would think of themselves as fearless, exist by virtue of what is essentially built-in fear.
So if the perpetual question is “Am I safe,” what happens when the apparent answer is “No?”
Every system of the body is constantly modulated by two “sides” of the autonomic nervous system. The sides are called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, but we will call them the stress brain and the rest brain for short. The stress brain is in charge of meeting external demands, taking action, and the classic “fight or flight” response. The rest brain is in charge of internal upkeep like digestion, tissue repair, reproduction, and immune function. Organs and tissues in the body are linked up to both sides and behave differently according to how much input is coming from each side. A rough analogy would be some type of machine, say an engine, that has a control with a blue wire, and a red wire. The signal from the red wire says “increase throttle,” and the signal from the blue wire says “decrease throttle.” Both wires could have a very strong or very week signal, but it’s the net sum of the signals that gives the final position of the throttle. Regenerative body systems, like digestion and immunity increase their activity in response to the rest brain’s signal, and action oriented systems like the skeletal muscles increase activity in response to the stress brain’s signal. This is why someone’s stomach might start growling a few minutes into a massage; they were under enough stress prior to the massage that their digestive system was put on hold so that resources could be devoted to the skeletal muscles, once relaxation set in, digestion resumed – audibly.
To oversimplify, when the nervous system has determined that the body is not safe, or rather, that this is not an appropriate time to rest and regenerate, it pushes all action systems in the direction of overdrive, and puts all regenerative systems closer to a pause. Increased sympathetic tone (stress brain activity) makes the muscles of movement (skeletal muscles) more active (tension). It also increases the likelihood that the brain will interpret a given stimulus as a threat, and therefor generate the feeling of pain (That’s right, pain is made up by your brain, it’s not a sensory input.). This is part of what we must understand, but it does not answer the title question of this post.
So, generally speaking, more “stress” equals more tension and pain – duh. The question of why we have recurring patterns of tension, usually in the same place, still remains. The short answer: We are creatures of habit. In fact, all creatures are.
Before we move on, I want to clearly define the term “Sensory-Motor.” This refers to the function of the nervous system to feel and produce movement and position. In addition to the classic “five senses,” we have a slew of internal senses including proprioception, which is Latin for “self sensing.” Basically, we have nerve endings inside our muscle and connective tissues that collect information about things like length, position, tension, and pressure, and send it upstream to the central nervous system, and we have motor neurons that tell muscles to contract. So now you will know what I’m talking about when I say “sensory,” feeling movement and position, “motor,” producing movement or muscle activity, and “sensory-motor,” all of these processes combined. The really interesting part, and the one that’s really relevant to our question, is the part that happens upstairs in the brain; what the brain decides to do with the information from the proprioceptors, and other inputs (like memory), and what motor patterns, and other outputs (like pain), it chooses.
So the brain has something that we’ll refer to as a sensory-motor library. It’s a library of all of the movement and position related feelings, and all the muscle firing commands that we recognize and use. When a baby squirms around in its crib, scrunching its face, moving its tongue, grasping its fingers and toes, and generally – squirming, its doing very important work. We’re born with a more or less empty sensory-motor library, and every time we use our skeletal muscles (or have a part of us moved by external forces) in a new way we add a volume to that library. The first years of life are spent doing this, and it’s very straight forward to observe the development of a child’s “motor skills.” We generally tend not to think too much about “sensory skill” development, but the two really can’t be separated.
Now that the role of the sensory-motor faculties of the nervous system are more clear, I just want to add that they do not work alone. Every action involves, in addition to proprioceptive data and motor output, emotion, thought, memory, and meaning. To arrive at the appropriate motor (or pain) output, our brain first considers all of these factors. In this process the level of stress brain vs rest brain activity is, of course, key.
When you learned to brush your teeth, ride a bike, type, drive a car, write, or anything else, you were a bit shaky at first – maybe very shaky in some cases. As a reminder of what that’s like, try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Notice the thoughts, emotions, memories, and meanings that this action involves. If you do this, you will be expanding your sensory-motor library by one more volume. Imagine the “size” of a decathlete’s or modern dancer’s sensory-motor library compared to the average person’s.
For reasons that are too many to mention here, we each learn to do things in a unique way. Handwriting is a very clear example, it’s so unique that it can be used to identify people for official documents and in investigations. The same goes for our reactions to stress. Stress is a fact of life, it is simply the body’s response to any given demand. Sure it comes and goes to some degree, but it’s never eliminated while we live. As we grow, we develop motor output patterns that correspond to different situations, feelings, memories, thoughts, etc. If one facet of an action, say a certain emotion, is very prevalent in our lives, we will repeatedly use the motor pattern that goes along with it. As certain patterns get used more often, they become more likely to be chosen at any time. This is called habituation, the forming of a habit.
That knot in between your shoulders, that stiff low back, that foot that’s turned out a little more than the other, those are all motor habits, and they are all perpetuated by the brain. Yes, the tissue adapts to these patterns, but the brain makes the decision, and to the extent that the tissues can allow, the brain can change its habits. In a sense, we have recurring patterns of tension because that’s what we’re used to, it’s what we know to do.
The usefulness of bodywork lies in its ability to increase the adaptability of tissues, but more to the point to augment the client’s sensory-motor capacity. To put that in more marketable terms, the point of bodywork is to help people feel better and be able to move more.
When you get up from the table after a massage or bodywork session, and feel that you have more “space” within you, or maybe feel taller, or more “grounded,” what you’re experiencing is an increase in sensory information. You’re feeling many more tiny little parts of your structure that had been forgotten or never before sensed, and you may also be feeling new position and movement patterns (a great feeling for satiating the ever present “I want better posture” sentiment). To evoke our metaphor once more, you have just had a whole section or floor added to your sensory-motor library. That’s much more than the novel experience of that “spacey” feeling; it’s an opportunity to feel and move in ways that were previously not possible, and it’s a state in which you’re less likely to experience pain. With repetition, it can be retained longer, and called upon at will. When combined with a movement practice, I mean one where you explore new ways to move, it has even more power to transform all facets of your daily actions in the long term, that is to say, to change your life.
So, in times when you feel resigned to tension or pain, get a massage, you will feel better. In times of exploration and questioning, get a massage, you will never feel the same. I can attest to this, because this has been my experience, and the experience of my clients.