I’m sure at some point in your life you have had someone tell you- “Just breathe!” You may have been going through a rough patch, having some kind of meltdown, been in the midst of an argument, or perhaps even a panic attack.
I know I’ve had people tell me this before- several times. And- I’ve said it to people on different occasions too. But there’s some very interesting things about breathing and how they relate to stress. I found out that it’s not quite as simple as we might think- to “just breathe” I mean.
Have you ever heard of the psoas (so-az) muscle? Maybe you have- if you’re a doctor, OT, PT or massage therapist.
Me? I’d never heard of it until about a year ago. And, I learned about it in an interesting way because I learned about it in relation to the work we do at Brain Fit Academy. In relation to Primitive Reflex Integration.
The psoas is a basically a large hip flexor that directly links the spine to the legs. There’s actually two psoas muscles- the major and the minor. I’m referring to the major one here. But what is interesting, so, so interesting is that the psoas plays an important role in the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. Yes, that’s right- the response that keeps us safe in the face of danger- real or perceived.
According to Liz Koch, the author of The Psoas Book, “….the psoas plays an important role in the survival response of the organism: the fight-flight-freeze response.” “When fetal curl is activated, the psoas (along with other flexor muscles) neurologically fires bringing the extremities together into a fetal-c curve.” She goes on to say that that c-curve “creates a sense of safety while protecting the soft, vulnerable parts of the body.”
Ok- so let me put that into layman’s terms. When we go into a “freeze” response, the body (literally) gets pulled into a c-curve, AKA the “fetal position”. The psoas- that muscle that many don’t really know much about, does that. It helps “pull in” the body to that c-curve- that fetal position.
Great Amy, I get that now. But what does that have to do with breathing?
Well you see, the psoas is also correlated with our diaphragm- one of the main muscles responsible for breathing. 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. Which means- we aren’t able to take a full breath!
Fight/Flight/Freeze=tight psoas=less movement in diaphragm=shallow breathing.
So asking someone to “just breathe” when they are in the middle of a F/F/F response is probably not going to be as fruitful as you might like.
And for those that are constantly in that F/F/F mode? Breathing- real, deep, belly breaths are most likely just not happening. They just aren’t because they can’t!
So what do we do? Well, one of the ways we address this at Brain Fit is that we work with our clients to release some of that tension in the psoas. We do movements that help relax and stretch the psoas. Thereby, allowing the diaphragm to more fully extend.
We also teach a Brain Gym® movement called Belly Breathing. Belly Breathing teaches how to breathe more fully into the “belly”- expanding the rib cage in all directions and allowing for more oxygen to reach the brain.
You’d be surprised at how many kids I’ve worked with that have had trouble learning how to belly breathe- and I’m sure it has a lot to do with the psoas muscle!
When we work with clients to integrate the MORO and Fear Paralysis reflexes, these breathing and psoas exercises and activities correspond nicely. It’s really interesting to see how much more relaxed a person feels after stretching the psoas and then breathing. I feel it myself when I do the exercises along with them. Loosening up the tension in that psoas muscle can have such an impact on the breath and gives a whole new meaning to “just breathe”.
The psoas is an important muscle and deserves more attention than we typically give it. Work with your own (or your child’s or whomever!) and see if it makes a difference.
Hey- maybe- I can start a new saying. What do you think?
“Stretch the psoas before the breath, that will help you calm your stress…”