Have you ever felt unexplainably anxious or depressed for no reason? Or have you ever had physical pain that worsens when you are angry, upset, or scared? It could be a sign that you need to release muscle tension.
In this article, we’ll explore the psoas muscle, its importance, and how to use emotional release techniques to influence it. Read on to discover what could be holding you back from achieving emotional freedom.
What is the Psoas Muscle?
The psoas (pronounced so-as) is a long, thick muscle that runs from the front of the lower spine through the pelvis and attaches to the femur (thigh bone)—often called a “hip flexor” because it is responsible for flexing the hip or lifting the foot from the floor. But this muscle plays a more significant role as it is paramount regarding functional movements, breathing, and supporting our emotional states.
The psoas muscle is your body’s most significant muscle. Connecting your spine to your legs and your legs to your spine, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning if you didn’t have this vital muscle group!
Furthermore, your psoas muscles become active whether you run, cycle, dance, perform yoga, or sit on the sofa because your psoas muscles are the fundamental connections between your torso and your legs. As a result, they impact your posture and function and aid in supporting your spine.
What is the connection between tight muscles and emotional release?
We all have had the experience of holding back emotion and didn’t realize how the nervous system is behind the scenes choreographing a sequential pattern of muscular tightness to restrict emotions from surfacing or from being expressed. The tightness in the jaw, the constriction of the throat, the sharp, short gasp of the inhale, the freezing and armoring of the chest, and fists clenching are all symptoms.
Remember, muscles don’t all of a sudden become tight! The nervous system governs the tension in any muscle.
Unconscious to us, the nervous system can tighten certain muscle groups based on specific postures held for long periods or repetitively, like sitting or standing with the knees hyperextended.
It may be easy to see how sustained or sudden trauma to the spine or legs could initially trigger the nervous system to tighten or contract specific muscles to guard and protect. But it is not so easy to see how emotional trauma or repressed emotions could also contribute to sustained muscle contraction.
Although the feeling may no longer be conscious, the neurological response of tightness can remain in the body long after the event—sustained periods of tightness lead to dysfunctional movement patterns.
Before you know it, tight psoas muscles will cause low back, hip, and even knee pain. But these muscles can also tighten when feeling various emotional states and potential or genuine threats.
The fundamental connection between sustained tight, constricted muscles (especially the psoas muscle) and emotions has to do with the nervous systems receiving sensory information connected to how we are breathing.
Most people don’t realize that the air enters (inhales) and leaves the lungs (exhales) because of the muscle contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm. This dome-shaped muscle lies below the lungs and is attached to the interior surfaces of your ribs and the front of your upper lumbar vertebrae. This contraction (inhale) and relaxation (exhale) of the diaphragm happens at a minimum of 8 to 16 breaths per minute while at rest.
Interestingly, the psoas muscle originates from the upper lumbar vertebrae and passes through a ‘hole’ or ‘crura’ in the diaphragm as the psoas muscle descends into the pelvis and finally attaches to the upper leg.
Abnormal or sustained tension in the psoas muscle or chronic, short inhalations can ultimately alter the function of our movements. The breath is a barometer of our emotional health and resiliency. Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of our breath’s role in our emotions, movement, and comfort.
At times, we breathe just barely enough to stay alive. But when we are overwhelmed or scared, the brain will sense this based on the sensory receptors’ input: sight, smell, hearing, touch, sudden change in position, and even emotional triggers, which will change how we breathe. We may breathe faster, sigh, gasp, or even stop breathing altogether.
The brain activates the Sympathetic Nervous System because it is always on watch and interpreting whether there is a threat (pain or loss) or fear of danger. Hard-wired into our nervous system, this response is gearing up or preparing you to run, fight or be very, very still; in other words, it is preparing or readying all the muscles that control the Center of Mass (COM) or pelvis to move.
It is easy to see our physical reactions to physical pain. But we often overlook how repressed emotions follow this same response pattern. Whenever we experience pain or anything unpleasant, especially loss, we naturally withdraw from it (contract our muscles, move away) or shut down (get very still).
We use various techniques to mitigate or get the emotional pain or hurt out of our awareness. Our responses to physical and emotional pain are similar: natural and biological. And observing one’s breath is the common denominator.
Our breathing feels completely different during an emotional reaction or suppression than during quiet periods of breath awareness. A sudden burst of emotional energy spontaneously activates muscles in the chest wall. It can immediately increase the speed and depth of breathing, even becoming restricted, uneven, or erratic.
Paying attention to certain qualities of our breath and implementing specific breathing strategies can help us relieve muscle tension or emotional repression and unlock a deep neural pathway that can open us up to emotional freedom and more physical comfort.
Therapeutic Intervention for the Psoas Muscle
Many different therapeutic interventions can be used to assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension, and even trauma. One of the most common and effective methods is somatic therapy.
Somatic therapy is a type of bodywork that uses gentle, slow movements and attention to breath to release tension by moving and exploring in the direction of ease and not into a barrier or through stretching.
Another powerful strategy is the Tension and Trauma Release Exercise, created by Dr. David Berceli. Simple and easy exercises evoke the body’s natural response, shaking or vibrating, which resets the Sympathetic Nervous System’s stuck response of freeze. It is also beneficial in relieving pain and restoring normal function to the psoas muscle. This strategy and other therapeutic interventions can improve the range of motion in the tissues and joints, restoring functional movement patterns.
Exploring the shifts in one’s feelings is essential to help us identify an emotion tied to past events and pain. When you struggle with emotional triggers, e.g., the fear of rejection, you may find yourself stuck in cycles of muscular and emotional reactivity and overwhelm.
This mental and physically exhausting cycle often impacts everyone around us – including those we love the most and hold most dear. A somatic therapeutic intervention helps a client understand emotional triggers are simply emotions linked to past pain.
Other therapeutic interventions such as Havening and Focusing help clients to be with their pain while staying connected to the breath without freezing or tightening the musculature. Interventions such as these enable clients to access resources they never knew they had and empower them to change how they react to an emotional trigger and feel relief from anxiety and the joy of moving again.
Somatic therapeutic interventions can help restore the balance between breath, movement, and emotional regulation. Muscles do not store emotion. They ‘store’ contracted muscle states or muscle shortening. The psoas muscle doesn’t necessarily ‘hold’ emotions. Still, it reflexively tightens because of its anatomical relationship to the diaphragm and its neurological ties with the brain’s natural response to keep us safe. These ties also change the breath and prepare the muscle patterns to fight, run or freeze.
Remember, the nervous system usually releases the contracted muscles by allowing the natural response of shaking and vibration, allowing emotions, breath, and muscle tension to return to a state of balance.
Examining the connection between the psoas muscle, emotions, and breath is essential. For example, a change or release of a certain level of stiffness, constriction, restriction, or tightness in muscular tension in the psoas can restore a full exhale and contribute to an emotional release, such as crying or making guttural sounds. It is much easier to understand how this can happen when we know that these responses are normal and indicate that resetting our nervous system is a natural response that is needed.
Learning to respect the connections between unresolved emotions, muscle stiffness, and shallow breathing can be a powerful tool to help free yourself of emotional stagnation and physical discomfort.
With time and practice, you become more aware of what is happening inside you on an emotional level, allowing for greater self-knowledge — as with many forms of energy work, listening to your body’s wisdom will ultimately bring about great clarity and the opportunity for personal growth. In addition, embracing this process of releasing stagnant physical energy from our deepest core can empower us as individuals and connect us with others meaningfully.