Do our muscles have emotional memory?
Recently, I have heard a lot on the idea of the psoas being able to harbour trapped emotion. Forgive me if my view is a little tongue in cheek but if you’ve watched our webinars, you’ll already understand how I look at things a bit differently.
If muscles were people, then the psoas would be the head of the football team, rugby team or cheer squad. Vacuous and emotionally stunted, whilst looking great. Muscles in general have one thing to do which is contract and relax. They are brilliantly equipped with their own cells and motor units and each muscle is considered an individual organ. What they are not capable of is memory. Although the idea of cellular transference and cellular memory is a thing, muscles themselves are power houses and I don’t believe in any idea of ‘muscle memory.’
Instead, what is clear is that nerves that are myelinated, having laid down fatty schwann cells, will transfer information faster via a process of it jumping over spaces, nodes of Ranvier, created by the myelination of the nerve. This jumping is called saltatory conduction after the Italian saltatore – to jump. Myelination of nerves comes about as a result of learning something. The more you do something the better you get at it, not because the muscles have learned anything, but because the nerve endings that deliver the information from the brain have become finely tuned to the job required, be it playing a trumpet or juggling chainsaws.
The area around the psoas is a hugely loaded area from many respects and the psoas fits in within a chain of other structures to do a job. The central location of this area being around the solar plexus suggests that it would be a central point for emotional responses based around the autonomic nervous system. This is an area that will need to have rapid response in the case of sympathetic nervous system responses, with the pancreas being involved in triggering hormones to release energy and for the digestive system to restrict blood supply and so forth. The psoas just happens to be there.
However, I do feel strongly that as highly emotional beings we don’t primarily respond mentally to our emotional input but instead go to the physical as an initial response. We don’t think angry, we feel angry, we feel sad, we feel stressed and so forth. Our language expresses this perfectly. Our thought processes come along and we start to think our feelings. For most people this is the problem and one of my workshops called Emotional Stiffness, discusses the idea of us being physical and emotional beings before being mental and thinking beings. What does ‘angry’ look like?
It’s not hard for us to look at someone else and say that they look angry, sad or stressed. As well as their behaviour there are physical signals being given that alert us to the emotional and, by extension, mental state of an individual. We use these senses all the time with ourselves and with others without being conscious as to what our physical form is doing to reflect or represent our emotional state. We have trained ourselves into these physical states since early childhood. We know what angry feels like in our body and we know what to do with our body when this feeling arises. As well as the physiological changes that we know about and can measure in the sympathetic nervous system such as heart rate, breathing, blood flow and so forth, we will have learned to adopt a physical position. It’s a go to that will happen every time the emotion, whatever it might be, is triggered. Learned behaviour is a training as sure as weightlifting or yoga is a training and we will lay down connective tissues around our muscles that will support this and allow us to adopt that position when we feel the input that directs the feeling.
If we have spent many years being angry, depressed and so forth, we will also have trained our physical form into an instantly familiar pattern that will reflect our emotional state. In time the physical state becomes inseparable from the emotional state and one potentially drives the other. The cycle is indivisible unless it is recognised. We might spend a lot of time with our therapist, recognising our patterns, understanding our behaviour, recognising our triggers and dealing with our behaviours, but if our physical behavioural patterns are strongly embedded, then just by moving into a certain position could have the potential to move us into the familiar emotional state that we are trying to step away from.
My aim in my workshops is to help people to start to recognise where in their bodies they experience emotional triggers and what happens to their body as a response. It’s a combination of movement and mindfulness that encourages people to assimilate recognise and where possible allow and welcome their feelings as manifesting in a physical form and then to avoid moving into a mental space that then just spirals downwards.
The bottom line is that it’s physiologically implausible to suggest that one muscle or even a collection of muscles for that matter, can ‘store’ memories. What they can do is respond to and easily move into a position that is familiar. Focussing on one muscle or structure is never either useful or correct and the idea of individual muscle function is a contradiction in terms. I believe that building integrated understanding of how we affect and influence our function from a physical, emotional, social and mental perspective and create imbalances in health and ill health, allows us to make much smaller and more manageable steps towards addressing dysfunction or imbalance.