Updated: September 3rd, 2021
We often think of our body as five different systems: circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, digestive, and nervous, with the mind being on its own.
But all the systems, including the mind, work together - none of them work alone. When one of the systems is malfunctioning, there is another system that will overcompensate or also malfunction. Everything in our body is connected.
Fascia is what the systems have in common.
Fascia is one of the many different types of connective tissues in our body. It surrounds, supports, and protects our organs, bones, muscle fibers, nerve fibers, and blood vessels. Understanding the relationship between fascia and the mind/body connections helps guide us to a healthier well-being. Understanding the functions of fascia, how to determine if fascia is healthy, how to improve the function of fascia, and how stress affects fascia will improve the lives of first responders, and military personnel. There are times when medicine is required to help with injuries, accidents, and illness, but often, the best first step can be to look at the role of our mind, body, and fascia.
Fascia is made up of water and is like a gooey sponge that soaks up the water. But also it is a silvery material that is flexible and durable. We find it throughout our body, almost as a continuous structure (Miller, 2014). Healthy fascia is mobile, unrestricted, slides, and is well lubricated. Healthy fascia allows first responders and military personnel to react with clear minds and strong muscles. Healthy fascia facilitates quick, effective communication between all of the body’s systems. A first responder needs to assess a situation and respond instantly. Fascia is the conduit to allow that to happen. Fascia, in other words, is the whole body’s connective tissue, head to toe, inside-to-outside, all-encompassing interwoven throughout the body (Miller, 2014).
Fascia that is unhealthy is brittle, stiff and tight, and there are restrictions that form.
When fascia becomes dehydrated it can limit mobility and cause painful knots to develop (Johns Hopkins Medicine.org, 2021). There are several factors that cause fascia to become unhealthy, such as limited physical activity, moving the same part of the body in a repetitive manner, or injury. The aches and pain are often attributed to overuse, underuse, or misuse. The extra weight of protective gear, the way military or police personnel may sit in a vehicle- leaning to one side because of a gun holster, may cause pain, which can result in slower reflexes. The approximate weight of police officer gear is 20-25lbs, the weight of the firefighters basic gear is approximately 59lbs. (Mead, Olivia, 2021). Pain, tightness, strains, and discomfort can be caused by fascia that is distorted or has developed adhesions. The fascia sheath no longer has as much give and can become wound up like a wrung out dish rag (Humphries, 2018). The discomfort or pain can occur in the neck, jaw, shoulders, back, or even feet - anywhere and everywhere.
Understanding how bodies manage and hold stress in certain areas can help people better care for themselves to be more physically and mentally healthy, not just for their jobs, but also for life outside of the role as a first responder. The stresses to physically carry required gear may cause extra strain on the neck muscles, shoulders, back and hips that will eventually affect the rest of the body. Stress affects our bodies in so many physical ways: headaches, high blood pressure, increased heart rate and breathing, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, dry mouth, GI issues, rashes, hives, a compromised immune system, muscle tension, and body aches. Those are just the physical systems that can be impacted by stress. Stress can also affect psychological systems, resulting in anger, depression, rapid mood changes, anxiety, memory loss, or lack of concentration (Shapiro, 1996,2006). Both the body and mind can be negatively affected by stress. Luckily the body will always speak to us, but are we listening? That is where the mind/body connection comes in. By listening to our pains, tension, and stiffness, we can choose to do something about them.
Being in a continuous state of stress, which first responders and military personnel live in, can cause inflammation and decrease the function of the body’s systems. With this constant stress, the body’s systems cannot work properly, which can lead to disease, accidents, and mental fatigue. In constant stress mode, we become more reactive. Maintaining healthy fascia through deep breathing and tension-release work is important to control stress and improve life, both at work and at home.
We breathe naturally, but are we breathing correctly to activate our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system?
Our Sympathetic Nervous System is the “fight or flight” system, it uses chemicals to fuel the body and brain to take action; the Parasympathetic Nervous System helps us “rest and digest”, to help regulate basic body functions (Van Der Kolk, 2014)). Heart rate variability measures the balance between the two (Van Der Kolk, 2014). This is important to first responders and military personnel because when the two systems are in balance it allows us to respond in control to minor frustrations and disappointments, enabling us to calmly assess what is going on (Van Der Kolk, 2014). When these systems are not in balance, it is likely that our heart rate and breathing increase, which can cause us to overact and respond in inappropriate ways. Using the breath to help slow the heart rate can help us become more mindful of what the mind and body is telling us. Thus, allowing us to make better and quicker decisions.
Tactical Breathwork helps with the connections between the mindset and breath (Mead, Olivia, 2021).
Three Part Tactical Breathwork consists of inhaling - starting in the belly, moving up to the ribs, and then filling the chest. The exhale moves in the reverse order: exhaling the chest, then the ribs, and finally the belly. This system uses the diaphragm to breathe, allowing us to fully expand our belly, ribs, and chest. This systematic breathing allows the lungs to fully inflate and get in as much fresh oxygen as possible. When we do not fully expand our inhale, we may feel shortness of breath and general body fatigue (Miller, 2014). Working the diaphragm properly helps with relaxation, which, in turn, helps us to stay alert and on point. Calming the mind and body also allows us to start to listen to our bodies. Where is the tension, the pain, the tightness?
Tension-release work is a key step to maintaining healthy fascia.
Notice where the hurts are? When we feel tightness or pain, we don’t want to move. If our feet hurt, we rub them or soak them in warm water, or do nothing at all. However, the tightness in our feet can affect our hips, back, and all the way up to our neck. That is why working with the whole body is important, moving it in order to heal. Using yoga balls or tennis balls to move the tissues that are tired, achy, or depressed on the inside helps to refresh them, rehydrate them, and mobilize them (Miller, 2014).
Yoga balls or tennis balls are used for fascia tension-relief work by rolling them side to side, in a diagonal, or in a circle. Once a tension area has been identified, the tension-relief practice involves placing the ball on the tired or achy spot. Generally the body is then moved in an up and down motion on the ball, maintaining a medium pressure on the ball. When a trigger spot is found, the person will want to stop and stay in that area with small movements or gentle pressure while continuing to breathe. It is important to maintain a smooth deep breathing pattern. Being aware of the body helps us notice how the ball massage feels and when the body starts to relax; it may take 2-3 minutes of ball massage in that area. To maintain a balance within our body, then switch to the opposite side. For successful tension-relief, don’t use the yoga ball or tennis ball on bone or joints. The process should not be “painful or hurting,” but should help identify the trigger area. There are so many areas in our bodies for myofascial release. First responders and military personnel often suffer back and shoulder pain from the gear they wear. The use of the myofascial tension-release balls will help release that tension in the fascia, allowing for better mobility, stability, and increased blood flow to that area; therefore allowing for a better stretch (Miller, 2014).
We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to notice them and act on these sensations to navigate safely through life. While numbing the sensation may make life tolerable, the price paid is a loss of awareness of what is going on inside the body, and with that, the sense of being fully alive (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Anita Whittle Class 0018 S6
“I have always loved the human body- how it moves, functions and heals. After working as a Critical Care Nurse, in trauma, CVRU and ICU, my fascination with the human body just continued to grow. When I retired from nursing , I became a yoga teacher. Now as a yoga t