I have found it to be hard to explain what John F Barnes Myofascial Release is in it's full depth and influence. In it's most simplistic form, myofascial release refers to releasing of restrictions within the muscles (myo-) and connective tissues (-fascial) structures of our body, which may be causing or contributing to pain either locally or in other areas of the body. However, when a trauma has been experienced, there are often both physical and emotional components which play into a feedback loop. It can be a chicken and egg kind of situation, but in the end an individual may need to address physical components, emotional components, or both. Receptors within the tissue of the body send a message to the brain that things are not right or safe within, the brain may register this as pain, tension, fear or anxiety, and the message back to the body is to tense up and be prepared to defend against danger. Left unchecked, both physical and emotional responses can become amplified and overly reactive over time. This reactivity may be called a trigger.
Triggers, we all have them! We all have that one thing, or that series of things, or those suppressed things that grow pressurized over time, that make us blow. That explosion causes us to act out (cry, yell, squeeze our fists, shake, hit walls, assault other with our words, or even physically assault those around us.) Just watch the news! We are a world of triggered people!
What a terrible thing it can be to act out, or be acted out against! But when the crying, yelling, shaking, hitting or whatever form it takes is over, the steam has been released from the pressure cooker. The more benign expressions of release may leave us feeling relieved, exhausted, or in some cases even refreshed. The more aggressive releases may leave us feeling guilty, confused, or dealing with more severe consequences of broken relationships, physical injury (ourselves or others) or even legal ramifications. In the cases where there are bad consequences, another trauma has been added to our life experience. We don't want that to happen again, so we put the lid back on the pressure cooker determined not to let the lid blow off again! But if we don't figure out how to let some steam off on a regular basis, we are most decidedly going to do just that!
Ah, but we are self-controlled we might say. Control, control, control, until our bodies themselves are holding so much tension that we now have "trigger points" of pain, or that diagnosis of cancer comes along, or that stroke or heart attack...and we find out that sense of control was just an illusion.
Now let me say, the ability to be triggered is a normal part of our nervous system makeup. We are wired to be able to protect ourselves. When the conscious mind or subconscious mind/body registers danger, it is made to be able to mount an emergency response. The "fight or flight" response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. When triggered, an automatic chain of chemical and physical events happens that literally charges the body with energy. Nerves fire, muscles tense, breathing and heart rates increase, blood vessels are widened to vital muscles and organs (heart, lungs, and the more automated parts of the brain) while blood is shunted away from organs not vital to the moment (gut, kidneys, liver, and the thinking/reasoning part of the brain - no time to think, run!) So if an animal is charging at you, your child is about to step in front a car, or you have slipped and are accelerating toward the ground, you have the ability to instantaneously react without the slow down of conscious thought! Thank goodness for our fight or flight responses! We would all probably be dead without it!
In normal circumstances, after the triggered emergency reaction, the body will take some time to discharge any extra energy from the fight or flight response that wasn't used up (this will often come in the form of shaking/trembling), and the opposite end of the nervous system spectrum (the parasympathetic nervous system) will return the body to the restorative "rest and digest" state. Blood flow is increased to vital maintenance and repair organs (kidneys, liver, gut, etc), muscle tone returns to normal, and our thinking brain is back online. We typically have some learning from the experience, and especially in the short term we may be a little more reactive to a similar perceived threat.
In severe circumstances, there is yet another nervous system response. If a situation causes our subconscious mind/body to register imminent death, we have a "freeze" or "shut down" response. In this case, the body becomes either rigid or limp (collapse) and is no longer capable of conscious action. In fact consciousness and the feeling-sense of the body are usually taken completely offline, leaving survivors of severe traumas often left with no memory, limited memory, or a disassociated memory ("out of body" type of sense) of the event. This occurrence is not a conscious choice. When individuals wonder why they didn't fight their attacker or do more to prevent an accident, often it is because their subconscious mind/body automatically chose to protect them from the intense fear, impending pain or injury by shutting down. If death doesn't occur, a person may come out of the freeze in a charged state, still having the need to discharge the surge of energy that came with the initial fight or flight response. In the animal world, when an unrestrained prey animal somehow evades near death (say the lion wasn't really hungry and looses interest in the limp gazelle), it will get up, shake or run, and then in a few minutes go back to peacefully grazing, though likely more alert to danger for a time.
According to Peter A. Levine, PhD, a psychologist who has authored several books regarding trauma, individuals who are not allowed to discharge all of their kinetic energy (movement energy) after a traumatic event are more likely remain traumatized by it. He believes, based on his research, that there is a higher rate of lasting traumatic effect the more terrifying the event (such as a brutal assault) or when an individual is physically restrained or psychologically restrained by a stressor which is prolonged or perceived as inescapable (such as in cases of war or prolonged abuse). These individuals can get stuck in a state of either constant fight or flight where their body is charged and reactive to even the slightest triggers, or in a state of partial shut down, where they remain in a state of dissociated numbness, yet can have a massive reaction to particular triggers. These individuals are often diagnostically labeled as having post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Post traumatic stress disorder is a very real and very debilitating disorder, and we should not minimize it by trying to use this label without appropriate psychological diagnostics. However, it is important to understand that all of us have had a life collection of at least minor traumas and chronic stressors that can have the potential to create maladaptive nervous system responses. We may have chronic tension patterns in our bodies from a physical trauma that was never fully resolved, which keeps playing into a subconscious feedback loop of stress to our brains...pressure cooker. We may have been taught to sit still and always be self controlled, and each day tension builds in our bodies without an adequate outlet of stretching or exercising...pressure cooker. We may have learned that expressing certain emotions is not okay, or we are people-pleasers and suppress our own thoughts, feelings and needs...pressure cooker. We may have a history of abuse, a misplaced sense of guilt or anger that we are trying jam away in the past...pressure cooker. Maybe we need to numb the emotional pain with drugs or alcohol...pressure cooker. Or we think we are fine, but we go and go and go, with demanding jobs, always another project coming up, never enough sleep, always grabbing fast food because there is no time, now throw kids in the mix...pressure cooker! Add your story to the list.
We are not meant to let the pressure build! We need to find our outlets, our releases, our resolutions, so that we can stop living in a chronic state of "ready to blow". We have perfectly capable nervous systems that can give a nearly instantaneous emergent response when needed, but we are meant to come back down. We are meant to flow readily between "fight or flight" action and "rest and digest" recovery. Does your body know how to do this? Are you taking the time to address your physical, mental/emotional or spiritual health?
In my courses with Mr. John F. Barnes, he frequently states, "Without awareness, there is no choice". It didn't mean much to me at first, but I keep unpacking that statement again and again in my own life. Myofascial release in my own body has allowed me to experience what it feels like when tension is released and the fight or flight feedback loop between my mind and body settles, and I stop spinning anxious thoughts in my head. Healing is a journey more than a destination, and some days are better than others. But I am more aware of how I tend to re-create tension in my body and daily have the choice to address this with exercise, breathing/relaxation and self-care activities, or neglect myself. I am more aware of my emotional triggers and negative self talk, and how they physically impact me, and have a choice to follow the same deeply rutted mental pathways or try out new ones. I am aware of my fear that I may not be able to "fix"everyone, but make a choice to acknowledge that I have something valuable to offer my clients with myofascial release work, even if I can not own responsibility for their own choices or ultimate outcome. I am aware that I can't control every variable in my life or the lives of others, and choose to seek regular spiritual nourishment as a reminder to let go to God what is beyond my control or understanding.
Hopefully this blog post will give you pause to think about what physical or mental triggers you many be struggling with. If you are struggling with pain or tension that you can't seem to influence, myofascial release can be a great option to help your body discover what it feels like to release painful tissue restrictions, break out of the mind/body stress feedback loop and experience the calm of a settled nervous system. When you learn what it feels like to let go of your tension, you will become aware of what triggers it to build up again. That awareness may help you take proactive steps to diffusing your pressure cooker before it reaches a lid-blowing boiling point.
Disclaimer: Myofascial release is a wonderful treatment tool within a holistic health model, and may be pursued without doctor's orders in most cases, but it is not meant to be a replacement for medical or mental health care when this is needed. Feel free to discuss myofascial release with you doctor or mental health professional, or I am willing to consult with them upon request.