The Effects of Stress on Posture and Back Pain

Dr Bryan Articles

Stress, Posture and Back Pain

There are multiple types of stress; internal (mentally or physiologically driven) and external (environmental, including climatic, dietary, toxicity, etc). We are talking about the commonly accepted idea of stress; the headache and frustration from going to work, the pain in relationships, of self-esteem, of arguing with others, etc.

It is mentally driven, internal, but not isolated to the individual because the mind is in interaction with the environment; with society, with our commonly held beliefs, accepted roles and practices, all of which, depending on the cultural program may be more or less associated with the inner feeling of stress.

Stress is not the fault of the individual, but the society as a whole, as the ‘one’ functions as a product of the ‘whole’. This is not to negate the responsibility of the individual but to firstly outline that he/she is not the sole operator.

This article is not intended to analyze or define stress further, but to outline the possible implication on the neuromuscular system.  It is well accepted in modern thinking that the mind-body has a continuous connection.  Current research is showing this; anger is linked to adverse cardiovascular outcome; forgiveness is linked to cardiobeneficial outcomes.  So anger is cardiotoxic and forgiveness is cardioprotective (you can read more here from the American Journal of Cardiology if you wish —> click here ).

This is the implications of just one area of the body; what about the rest of the system?

Posture and Back Pain

‘Negative’ perception of events generating emotions such as anger, resentment, grief, worry, etc. imprint the physiology of the body into fight or flight; attack or withdraw.

Worry, grief, depression, anxiety, lack of purpose, etc. influence the neuromuscular system to stoop; hunch down in an attempt to return to the all protective fetus position.  This mentally driven response changes muscular tone to drop the head forward, round the shoulders and flatten the lumbar curve, which equals:

a) poor posture, b) decreased capacity to absorb the weight bearing forces of gravity through the spine, and c) decreased range of motion.

This can lead to overload at key junctions of the spinal column, particularly the upper and lower neck, mid back, and lower back, which, with repeated occurrence

can lead to pain, stiffness, and degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis and disc bulge.  

Anger, hate, aggression, etc. also influence the neuromuscular system to curl into a ball in an attempt to brace for battle.  This is the typical boxers stance; the shoulders hike upwards, the arms rotate and the natural  curvature reduces, which again has similar effects to the above mentioned response in withdrawal.

What to do?

As the key source of stress is internally generated; i.e. how the individual responds to the environment, how the programming of the mind interprets the incoming stimuli, the solution for the stress-related effects on posture and back pain must come from within.

This article is not intended to solve the root cause of internal stress; an entire book could be devoted to such a topic. There are multiple historic and cultural avenues to proceed along:

  • religiously we can use meditation, yoga, prayer, chanting, surrender, taking holy names, mantras, japas, etc. or
  • secularly we can use introspective journalling, psychology, exercise, nature, early morning sunlight, decreased usage of media, group activities, family and/or friendship conversation and bonding, music, art, recreational or medical drugs, etc.

There is no single way; each must find his own light; copying will not turn on the inner flame but merely make you a reflection of the other.

This article aims at increasing the awareness around the multifaceted nature of neuromuscular problems: posture, back pain, neck pain, headaches, etc.  The human organism is infinitely interconnected internally and externally, and the more we increase the level of awareness about the multifaceted nature of life, the more we can look at the problems of the body as inter-related: mind-body-spirit, and avoid the infantile approach of reductionist thinking.

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  • Bryan Hornby