Our Issues Are In Our Tissues: Emotions And Fascia
In terms of published research and information in general, there seems to be more emphasis on fascia and its anatomical function and composition and its role in posture. In this article I want to focus on how emotions connect with the fascia. Fascia (our connective tissue) has been with us from the very beginning, in fact it’s our fascia that guided our form when we were a tiny embryo in our mother’s womb. It is connected to the brain and therefore affects the nervous system, hormones and the subsequent appropriate release of vital chemicals we require within the body. It was on my homeopathic training that I first heard the phrase “the issues are in the tissues”. So what does this mean? In essence, this amazing vessel we occupy, our body, retains memories (not just our brain). Memories of stressful encounters, emotional events, stressful interactions, trauma, thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves, all get stored in our tissues or cells. We are the sum of our interactions, thought processes and emotions we have throughout our lives. As soon as I heard this expression, ‘our issues are in our tissues’, it deeply resonated with me. It made unquestionable sense. We literally embody the way we experience and interact in our lives. Our emotions, self-construction and our memory have an effect on our fascia, and speeding up the hands of time, these memories impact on our mobility, the way we move and ultimately our posture. Ken Dychtwald in his book ‘Bodymind’, considers posture in relationship to the emotional body, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue itself.” Is this such a radical idea? Can we truly separate mind and body? From a holistic perspective, and from my background in health, the short answer is no.
For me, being human has always been a curiosity. My inquisitivity led me to want to understand more and I studied psychology at college and university. I learnt about what it is to be human; understanding sleep, individual differences, childhood and adolescent development, cognition and everyday social phenomena, such as altruism, attitudes, aggression and conformity. I understood theories, I could implement research methods and by the end of my training I had read hundreds of journal articles. However, I hadn’t yet discovered the mind-body connection in terms of health outcomes.
So, what is the mind-body connection? The mind-body connection is the link between a person's thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors and their physical health. It wasn’t until a decade later, I deepened my understanding of the impact of emotions using the foundation of ‘the mind-body connection’ by studying homeopathy. I learnt through my studies and saw first hand from my clients the relationship between a person's experiences and interactions and their health. In essence, the ‘body keeps the score’ (21); the body ‘remembers’ experiences in its tissues. Take for example- when we have a strong emotion, our body has a physical reaction. Try this exercise below to explore the mind-body connection for yourself.
---- Make yourself comfortable, you may sit or lay down and close your eyes. Begin to focus on your breathing. Feel the sensations of the air moving in and out of your nostrils. Sense how the breath fills and leaves your body. Do this for a minute or so. If your attention wanders, guide your attention back to watching your breath again. Notice how your body feels, the quality and the length of your breath, and the sensations on your inner landscape.
Now in your mind’s eye - imagine a scene that makes you feel at peace and ease. It might be a place you have been, or a place you imagine. Immerse yourself there - feel how it is to be in your place of peace and ease. Use your senses to see and feel what it is to be here. What do you see and hear? What is the temperature of the air on your skin?
Take a few moments to notice how your body feels, the quality and the length of your breath, sensations within your body. How relaxed do you feel? Are there any emotions in your awareness?
Now in your mind’s eye imagine another scene, an experience where you felt stressed. It might be stuck in traffic whilst trying to get to an appointment on time, or maybe a deadline you’re trying to achieve. Imagine how you felt at this time with all your senses.
Take a few moments to notice how your body feels, the quality and the length of your breath. Do you feel any sensations in your body? How relaxed do you feel? Are there any emotions in your awareness? Do you feel any tension? Where is it? What other sensations do you feel in your body?
Finally, in your mind’s eye imagine the same scene that made you feel at peace and ease. Once again immerse yourself here, it is as though you are there. Use all your senses to see, feel and hear your place of peace and ease. As you immerse yourself here, spend a minute or so watching your breath again - watch how the breath enters and leaves your body. Notice how you feel.
This exercise demonstrates the extent to which emotions affect your body and your mind. The scene where you experienced stress, most likely would have caused some sort of tension in your body and perhaps your breath was more shallow and you felt tense and uneasy. This experience would have had an impact on your nervous system and your fascia, causing tension. Perhaps those feelings of tension were felt in well recognised habitual areas of tension, such as the jaw and shoulders. With the scene of peace, your body most likely would have felt at rest and ease; again your fascia would respond to this, meaning it too was able to relax, embodying more of a sense of spaciousness.
We are unable to separate the mind-body connection. This speaks to the fact that the brain communicates with the body via the central nervous system and the body via afferent nerves, or sensory nerves, communicates back to the brain. Specifically, sensory nerves in the fascia are called mechanoreceptors. The fascia is in fact one of the largest sense organs in the body. Sensory nerves in the fascia comprise of muscle spindles, Ruffini and Pacini corpuscles, Golgi endings and free nerve endings. This accounts for the fact that the fascia plays a major role in proprioception. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is your body's ability to sense movement, action, and location, like an internal GPS system. According to Schleip et al. (12) our myofascial web actually has a much higher concentration of interceptors vs. proprioceptors. 80% of the peripheral nerves found in fascia are actually free nerve endings – with 90% of these being interoceptive. Interoception is a physiological sensory system that involves your overall sense of self and well-being. It creates emotional awareness of your physical body, such as feeling warm or cool, feeling movement, pain, tickle, itch, heartbeat and positive touch. Studies have shown links between interoceptive disorders, such as anxiety, depression (18), irritable bowel syndrome, addictions, hypertension, aging and post-traumatic stress disorder. (14) Research has shown ‘the myofascial continuum is able to stimulate the areas of the brain that deal with the emotional state, and manual treatment activates the interoceptive system. A dysfunctional myofascial system alters the posture and the emotional state. The fascial system is subject to manual treatment with the aim of restoring its proper function. The myofascial continuum is rich in interoceptors that are able to stimulate areas of the brain that control the emotional state. Manual therapy involves both the structure and the emotional sphere. The myofascial system is unequivocally linked to emotions (4). The link between mind/body awareness and healing is the psychological phenomenon called ‘state-dependent memory’, or state-dependent learning. A cue, such as smell, taste or the sound, creates a trigger to a memory, or flashback, where a visual, sensorimotor experience is replayed as part of a past event or important episode in our lives. Our bodies hold this information below the conscious level as a protective mechanism and becomes ‘state-’ or ‘position-dependent and creates a tendency for these memories to become dissociated. Although the information is stored in our fascia, we are not consciously aware of it, but maybe we are more aware of physical tension.
During these times of trauma or injury, our fascia system stores a “holographic” image of our body’s position, complete with all the fear, anger, sadness and so on that was felt at that time of the event. Dissociation can happen when our consciousness leaves our body if the situation is too traumatic for us to handle as it’s happening (during a fight/flight response). That is why the fascia has often been called the “handle of the consciousness”.
The impact of stress We live in a culture in which we are bombarded by stimulus, and stress is encountered on a daily basis. We take this as ‘normal’, whether it’s working to a deadline, rushing to the shops, having large workloads and constantly working to tight deadlines, sitting in a tail-back making getting to an appointment on time unlikely, or moving home. Of course a little stress can be helpful (eustress), for example to achieve a deadline if it is short lived. Our reaction to acute stressors causes arousal in the nervous system, or ‘fight or ‘flight’ response. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated. Hypothalamic neurons within the HPA axis secrete a corticotropin-releasing hormone that causes the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary. The ACTH causes the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol (a stress hormone). You might have heard of the ‘gut-brain’, the two-way biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. This relationship shows the reason why stress has such an impact on the digestive system. When we are under chronic stress, the nervous system shuts down non-vital components such as the digestive system. We can lose our appetite, feel sick and can begin not to absorb so many nutrients from our food, nor eliminate waste products and toxins from our system. After just weeks of sustained stress your body-mind will go into a state of exhaustion, immune responses are compromised and as a result the body is more susceptible to injury and illness. Ongoing stress also affects the vagus tone. The vagus nerve, or ‘wondering’ 10th cranial nerve that begins in the brain and innervates the gut, lungs and heart and is fundamental in its contribution to the parasympathetic (‘rest-digest’) branch of the nervous system..The vagus nerve influences speech, breathing, heart rate and liver function. I see the vagus nerve one of the body’s superpowers that can be used to counteract stress and your fight/flight response. Healthy vagal tone means the ability to regulate emotions; it provides greater connection with ourselves, and creates good physical health. You are more resilient and able to navigate yourself through the ups and downs of life. Vagal tone can be influenced by deep relaxation, yoga, breathing practices (yoga pranayama), and myofascial release, self myofascial release and homeopathy. We can also stimulate the vagus nerve through singing and chanting. It can also be stimulated by connection; a sense of belonging and community helps you to feel safe and secure. When you are connected, you are calmer and more positive. (I’ll be writing an article about fascia and the vagus nerve soon, check back to see my article posts).
Why connect fascia with emotions? Memories are held not only in the brain, but also held as energy within the fascial tissue (16) - your body literally holds on to these memories, it is unable to process them at the time of the event. Andrew Taylor Still, MD (16), the founding Father of Osteopathy, says
“ This life is simply too short to solve the uses of fascia in animal forces. It penetrates even its own finest fibres to supply and assist with its gliding elasticity. Just a thought of the completeness and universality in all parts, even though you turn the visions of your mind to floor the infinitely fine nerves. There you see the fascia, and in wonder and surprise, you exclaim, Omnipresent in man and all other living beings of the land and see. Other great questions come to haunt the mind with joy and admiration, and we can see all the beauties of life on exhibition by the great power of which fascia is endowed. The soul of man with all the streams of pure living water seems to dwell in the fascia of his body. When you deal with the fascia, you deal and do business with the branch of offices of the brain” Although Still’s writings are well over 100 years old, he showed a profound and embodied understanding of the fascia and its relationship with human existence. Our knowledge of the fascia through scientific endeavour is explaining the same findings, and research is still growing.
Events that are experienced as heightened emotional stress, such as a car accident, are stored unconsciously in our brain, and are unresolved in our body. This is a protective mechanism that stores these unprocessed memories and experiences, causing tension in our bodies. Our breathing patterns are linked to our emotions. Holding the breath can happen when we are stressed, anxious, excited, upset or frustrated and happens unconsciously and can become habitual. In some cases we might have been taught to hide emotion. Holographic images of our interactions, beliefs, self perception and injuries buffer against the forces of our body’s everyday movement, thus creating holding or bracing patterns to avoid the original pain. This in turn creates dysfunction. Emotions have often been described as “energy in motion”. (The Latin derivative for the word emotion is ‘emotere’; It literally means ‘energy in motion’). Our emotions have a magnetic field, a frequency that is unique to them. Emotions such as anger, sadness, fear and so on, if not released when they surface, will settle into the physical body. Over time, the body has so much of this energetic charge that it becomes like a magnet, and starts attracting more of itself. We tend to subsequently replay scenarios in our life that show a similarity of patterns associated with these deep held emotions, until we become conscious of such patterns.
John E. Upledger (20) says, “The body is an integrated unit, and mind, body and spirit can’t be separated out. When people experience trauma—emotional or psychological, or physical—it all gets programmed together in the motor cortex and motor control center, located in the cerebellum. The pattern gets locked, and based on the principles of neuroplasticity, emotions can get stored in this pattern or muscle or movement.”
Emotions become held inside of us when we are unable to feel them completely, we are unable to digest them or are afraid of allowing them to flow through us. We all have certain emotions that we are comfortable feeling and experiencing. Likewise, we all have certain emotions that we avoid, this might be because we did not learn how to process them. Yoga and bodywork, such as myofascial release, provide us with ways of connecting to feelings in a physical way. When we open to and welcome our feelings in our physical body, we begin to open to our emotions. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are responsible for the retention of memory, and are released during the alarm stage by the activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The state or position the person is in at the moment of a highly emotional event is encoded into a person's system as the person progresses into the ‘stage of resistance’. The system adapts and develops strategies to protect itself from further stress, fear or memories by avoiding those three-dimensional positions. Emotions communicate this mind-body information through neuropeptides. This creates a vicious cycle of interplay among the endocrine, immune and autonomic neuromyofascial systems and neuropeptides. If this cycle continues too long, the person then enters the ‘exhaustion stage’, in which the body’s defence mechanisms expend enormous amounts of energy, thereby depleting reserves and perpetuating this picture.
Selye (15) frequently described this type of resistance as being “stuck in a groove,” which we have all experienced at some point. When something familiar happens, we react unconsciously in a habitual pattern before we can consciously be aware of it to actually ‘control’ it. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, every time you see a car coming too fast you tighten and brace against the possible impact. People replay these incidents and the automatic, habitual bracing patterns associated with these events unconsciously.
According to Paolo Tozzi (17) an Italian osteopath who wrote, “memories in the body may also be encoded into the structure of the fascia itself. Most people believe that memories are, of course, in the brain. However, because fascia is so rich with nerve endings, Paolo explains that a neuro-fascial interaction may be responsible for the setting of a local tissue “memory”.
Thus, touch or manual therapy may “unload” the tissue, causing a change in neural input to the brain, which may trigger the memory.
It has been proven that fascia is able to contract independently of muscle tissue (14). This in itself has distinct implications for injuries and health conditions. When we consider this piece of research with this following piece; that fascia responds to chemical messengers like fear. Fear can produce a chemical called TGF. Research has proven that fear and related emotions can produce a TGF that causes the fascia to thicken, increasing inflammation and compromising our immune system.
So why Myofascial Release? Fascia is connective tissue that is pretty much everywhere in the body. It interfaces with bone, joint capsules, muscles, lymph and blood vessels. Fascia creates, stores and conducts electromagnetic energy at speeds faster than the nervous system. This is how emotions interface with the fascia and in turn have a direct impact upon our health and wellbeing.
Myofascial Release is a holistic therapeutic approach that helps to release and resolve tension (and emotions) held in the fascia. This helps to reduce inflammation, and soothe the stress response by activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. When practicing yoga or receiving bodywork, such as myofascial release, stored memories can be released as an emotional response, or maybe experienced more physically such as a twitch or jerk. Tom Myers, the author of Anatomy Trains, (10) there are several ways that show great promise in releasing the fascia, such as yoga, bodywork and myofascial release. He postulates that long, slow stretches allow us to reach the deeper tissues of the body and in turn change the fascia. Myers says, “The muscles have to relax first and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of repatterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.”
Myofascial Release helps us to deal with unconscious patterns and memories locked into the body, allows them to be released and provides the opportunity to open the path to healing. When we allow our emotions to exist and we help to make space. I find it humbling to work with clients to unravel and release held emotional and physical patterns in their bodies. Myofascial release provides the opportunity for healing in so many different applications. I work with people who have CFS/fibromyalgia, chronic stress, depression and anxiety patterns. I also see women who have abdominal scarring from C-sections. If you would like to arrange a chat about how MFR could help you, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
--------- References: (1) Joanne Avison, 2015; Yoga: Fascia, Anatomy and Movement, Handspring Publishing Limited
(2) Barsotti, Chiera, Lanaro & Fioranelli, 2021: Impact of stress, immunity and signals from endocrine and nervous system on fascia, Front Bioscience (Elite Ed). (3) Bordoni, Simonelli, 2018, The Awareness of the Fascial System, Cureus, 2018 Oct; 10(10): e3397.
(4) Bordoni B, Marelli F, 2017, Emotions in motion: myofascial interoception.Complement Med Res.;24:110–113. (5) Bordoni B, Zanier E, 2015, Understanding fibroblasts in order to comprehend the osteopathic treatment of the fascia. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. (6) Brewer R, Murphy J, Bird G., 2021; Atypical interoception as a common risk factor for psychopathology: A review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2021;130:470-508. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev..07.036 (7) Dychtwald, k, 1986; Bodymind, Jeremy P Tarcher; 2nd Revised edition (8) Drake, Shawn M, Amanda Martin, Shelby Lane, 2021: The Myofascial System and Mind-Body Connections for Improving Health. On J Complement & Alt Med. 6(1):. OJCAM.MS.ID.000627. (9) Khalsa SS, Adolphs R, Cameron OG, et al. 2017: Interoception and Mental Health: A Roadmap. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2018;3(6):501-513. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2017.12.004
(10) Myers, T (2008), Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual Therapists and Movement Professionals. Pub Elsevier.
(11) Oswald, A, 2018; Living Pain Free: Healing Chronic Pain with Myofascial Release, Lotus Publishing
(12) Pasin Neto H, Bicalho E, Bortolazzo G, 2021: Interoception and Emotion: A Potential Mechanism for Intervention With Manual Treatment. Cureus 13(6): e15923. doi:10.7759/cureus.15923
(13) Schleip R, Findley T, Chaitow L, Huijing P, 2012: Fascia: the tensional network of the human body; Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier (14) Schleip R, Gabbiani G, Wilke J, et al. 2019; Fascia Is Able to Actively Contract and May Thereby Influence Musculoskeletal Dynamics: A Histochemical and Mechanographic Investigation. Front Physiol. 10:336. Published 2019 Apr 2. doi:10.3389/fphys.00336
(15) Selye H. 1956, The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
(16) Still A. T. 1899, Philosophy of Osteopathy; Discoverer of the Science of Osteopathy and President of the American School of Osteopathy. Pub. A. T. STILL, Kirksville, Mo
(17) Tozzi P. J, 2014, Does fascia hold memories? Bodyw Mov Ther;18:259–265. (18) Torday JS, Miller WB, 2018; The Cosmologic continuum from physics to consciousness; Jr. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. In Press (19) Michalak, J., Aranmolate, L., Bonn, A. et al., 2021; Myofascial Tissue and Depression. Cogn Ther Res. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-021-10282-w (20) Upledger, J. E, 2002: SomatoEmotional Release: Deciphering the Language of Life, North Atlantic Books,U.S.; Illustrated edition (21) Van Der Kolk, Bessel, 2015, The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, Penguin.