Do you ever notice what emojis you text the most? Recently I noticed that the grimace (ie, the stressed-out, frazzled, “yikes” face) was always in my top 5. Not smiley, not surprised, not sad, but stressed. The symbolism of it made me take pause. Is that the message I want to be sending out all the time? Is that how I want to be feeling? What is that doing to my body to be in a grimace most of the time?
Take a minute and make that face. Notice what you feel in your face...tension? Relaxed? Notice your breath. You may be holding it, or feeling shallow breathing, like you are getting air in and out of the top of your lungs but not deep into your lungs and belly. How about your belly and pelvic floor? Are they relaxed or gripping?
The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that lifts and lowers along with our breath. Coupled with the diaphragm, we breathe in, and the pelvic floor should relax. We exhale, and it lifts. That’s what gives us “core stability”. So what happens if our diaphragm is relatively inactive with all the stressed-out shallow breathing? The pelvic floor tends to hold in a high, tense position. Think of it as that “knot” you get around your shoulders after sitting at the computer too long. That’s what’s happening in your pelvis.
The system that starts with the brain and ends up in all of our muscles and blood vessels, to deal with stress, is called the Sympathetic Nervous System. It’s also known as the “fight-or-flight” response, because its evolutionary purpose was to give us the ability to “fight” the bear or “take flight”, back in the cavemen days when real-life dangers were present. It causes increased heart rate and blood pressure and higher muscle activity. Today, that same system activates when we’re late for a meeting, or the kids spilled cereal all over the floor, or the husband left his dirty clothes on the bathroom floor...again. These constant stressors keep our muscles continually overactivated, leading to tension.
Since life is busy and imperfect, we can’t get rid of being late, clumsy kids, or messy husbands (or, if you do know how to do that, seriously, call me!) What we can control is how our body responds to it. The simple act of noticing the breath is the first step to changing that breathing pattern from that of shallow and problematic to deep, balanced and helping our body. If you’re feeling ambitious, meditation has been shown to help us reduce stress and improve breathing. Add in stress-reducing physical activity, like walking or yoga.
As an admittedly Type A, high-strung, on-the-go person, this has not come easily to me. It was initially met with much resistance, and is certainly a work in progress. But with that progress I’ve started to see in myself less muscle soreness, more energy, and overall better to handle the everyday stresses. And less grimacing.
If you try this (or have already been working on it) send me a message and let me know how it’s going!
Jill Heath is a licensed physical therapist and owner of She PT, LLC. She received a Doctorate of Physical Therapy and B.S. in Exercise Science from Northern Arizona University. During years of practice helping individuals of all ages recover from a variety of conditions, she developed a passion for working with women. She opened She PT, LLC with the purpose of meeting not only the unique physical needs of women, but also empowering women to take charge of their well-being by making care accessible.