Monday, October 31, 2011

Little Death

Tension in Mind-Body

Ending my east coast trip, I laid down for a quick nap on a bench at the Fuller Craft Museum when my friend said, "Stop doing that."  "What?" I asked, with a trace of defensiveness that sometimes precedes self-realization.  "Stop squinting your eyes."  In fact, I had already closed my eyes for the nap, and it wasn't especially bright, so it didn't make sense that I was squinting them.  "No I'm not."  Yes, actually, I was.  By now I was aware that I had been holding tension all over my body, and it was partially causing my neck pain.  With each new realization like this one, there is a horror and disappointment that you have become aware of YET ANOTHER area where you have been conspiring against yourself, for years.  Then there is hope.  If you can really listen, you are closer to solving the mystery of pain.  Followed by idealization, where you think you are cured.  Then a sinking feeling, when you realize true healing requires getting back on the highway of life.

Little death
In the days before I got to the museum, I had visited the spaces of three ex-girlfriends, an unbalanced work-life as a New York hedge funder, and a stressful finish to grad school.  A decade of memories, joys, wounds, fears, guilts, hopes, shames, frustrations, excitements, bores, resentments.  Very fitting.  This emotional landscape was imprinted in the physical landscape of my head, neck, and back.  Some of my memories were like little unmourned deaths - an ex who you might never talk to again, the loss of a community at grad school, even the loss of a workplace you hated at times.  Each unmourned death found it's way out of my conscious into a physical place in my body, in an ongoing tension pattern (e.g. squinting my eyes) sometimes cemented in a trigger point, or knot in my muscles.  You may have noticed in the Tao yin-yang symbol that just when the white half gets to be the widest, there is a dot of black inside of it.  In our productive and dynamic lives, we have a little bit of death in us, in the form of trigger points, calcified pockets of rigor mortis.

Why it's hard to relax
In most cases, it's appropriate to divide the nervous system into command central (brain, spinal cord) and peripheral order-taker (sensors, muscle actuators, organ controllers).  Let's leave out the gut for now, who's complexity and autonomy Gershon characterizes as the Second BrainPassing by involuntary muscles like your beating heart, let's focus on how voluntary skeletal muscles contract, given normal impulses from the brain, to understand how trigger points might form.  While muscle contraction happens intentionally, relaxation does not.

When you want to move, an impulse from your brain is carried through your spinal cord via a neuron to the neuromuscular junction, where neurotransmitters and sodium diffusion trigger muscles.  Contraction happens inside sarcomeres, where small filaments, actin and myosin, pull past each other and lock into place.  Like tightening loose velcro, you've got to break existing bonds to pull the two strips tighter. ATP provides the energy to break existing looser configurations, and calcium mediates the temporary "locking" of the muscle fiber in tighter contraction (video here).  Muscles connect via tendons to the skeletal bones, so contracting a muscle exerts force on your bones to do useful work like running.

Relaxing the muscle requires no particular nervous impulse.  ATP provides the energy for orderly relaxation.  It breaks bonds, held in place by calcium, allowing the calcium to pump out of the sarcomere, so muscle filaments can stretch out again.  Relaxation is not a neural intention, it's the absence of one.  This is one reason yoga teachers often call Savasana, or the corpse posture, the most difficult yet important posture to master.  As you practice, you will continually find more areas of muscle tension that you haven't released.  To release them, you must use attention more than intention, intuition more than reason.

Hiding from dinosaurs
What happens when you have to do some action for a long time?  If you are lucky, your skeleton was built for this action and you haven't unlearned using your skeleton.  For example, this robot suggests that, given our skeleton, walking requires no energy.  If you are unlucky, it's not something your skeleton was built for, and your muscles will have to contract to do the work. For example, try using a keyboard and mouse for 10 straight hours.  In normal fatigue, our muscles can't manufacture any more ATP, and we have created waste byproducts that get in the way of regular contraction.   But what if you are clutching to a tree to avoid a dinosaur? 

Is there some way to get your muscle to contract without ATP at all?  Can the calcium lock your muscle in place?  While the science is immature and disputed, here's a theory for what happens when you get that angry email from your boss.  Already cowering in your un-ergonomic desk, your stress response (we're talking fight-or-flight) asks your muscles to lock in place, disabling calcium diffusion out of the sarcomere.  A high concentration of calcium in the sarcomere without any ATP is the same condition that causes the progressive tensing of the muscles in the days after death, called rigor mortis.  Trigger points are our little pockets of rigor mortis.  They are calcified obstacles in your otherwise dynamic musculoskeletal system, radiating pain outwards, pulling your tendons,  ligaments, and spine out of their natural alignment and flexibility.  However the science turns out, I think this is a wonderful metaphor to meditate on.  Trigger points are a memory of holding on for our lives, stored in the localized death of our muscle.  Little bubbles of emotional and physical inflexibility.  Our mind forgot the dinosaur, our body did not.

Free psychic massage
I'm going to give you a free psychic massage, a tour of the trigger points I discovered over years of yoga and meditation.  If you are at work now, you might feel tension in these places.  If you are relaxing, you might have trigger points in these places.  People pay massage therapists good money to savage these trigger points.  Deep tissue practitioners, for example, might use their entire body weight, focused into the pressure of their elbow or forearm, to give you excruciating pain.  My advice: breathe, so you can tolerate the pain.  Because when they let up, you might have a completely new head, neck, and back.  Well, at least for a few weeks or months until you re-create these trigger points.  Note that good massage practitioners will provide the right amount of pressure, not too little that trigger points aren't loosening, but not so much that other muscles are tensing up.

I'm an amateur masseuse, but experienced at intuiting neck pain.  If you've got neck or back pain, I could probably give you a good massage.  Normally, I would feel for your unique points of tension to customize my effort.  But if I needed to give all of you one standard massage, here's a brief sketch of what I would do.  First I would find the areas involved in shrugging your shoulders -- a standard stress response.  I'd go for the rhomboideus major, on your back between your shoulderblades and spine - this is a "dead gimme".  I'd massage the teres major, right next to your underarm, and the deltoids to boot.  Then I'd work on your neck, where we often carry tension.  Specifically, your trapezius muscles in the back, and the scalene muscles in the front, just above your clavicle.   I'd work up your sternocleidomastoid extending up from the clavicle to the back of the jaw, as well as the fascia on the back of the neck, up to the splenius, at the base of the skull.  Since many of us handle stress by grinding our teeth at night and clenching them during the day, I'd massage the jaw (masseter) up (parotid) to the temples(temporalis) and around the ears (auricularis) - all are jaw-connected tensioneers.  I might even press your procerus, the point between your eyes, and it could release tension all along your scalp.  This is for people like me, who squint our eyes because we think too much.

Where's the cure?
If you are like me, you have no reason to examine body tension until you get acute pain.  And then it might take a while to come to understand all the ways stress manifests.  It took me years.  But I've seen hundreds of otherwise healthy people, some in their early 20s, where these patterns are forming.  Yoga, massage, and drinking water are great tools to get relief.  And maybe, as we get temporary relief, we will re-learn to stand straight, use our skeletons, and become conscious of what stress is doing in our bodies.  I reduced a majority of my pain in this way.  But not all of it.  Why are we holding this tension all the time?  Why do we think we are being attacked by a dinosaur when we are sitting in the relative safety of our desks?

I believe there is a deeper level of work to be done here, informed by an understanding of trauma, hurt and forgiveness.  I've gained alot from the study of it, as you can see in this blog, and I've seen a handful of people master it. They live a life that is sustainable, one that doesn't require borrowing from their body to be functional. More to come on this.


Anonymous said...

How this is really helpful. I was just on the floor with my foam roller and now I have an idea where to concentrate along my back. I love that image. THANKS

eudae said...

Glad it was useful @Faith!