Stress, Breath, and the Psoas

Do you have back or neck pain/tension, SI pain, sciatica, or anxiety? Most people experience stress in some way, shape, or form. Life, in general, can be stressful.  Do you have a daily practice focusing on stretching, breath or breathing? If not you’ll want to continue reading!

Our bodies were created with a survival instinct.  When we perceive danger with one of our 5 senses our sympathetic nervous system is activated and it responds with a physiological reaction called “fight or flight” (stress response).  Our brains initiate an electrochemical response which may include an increased heart rate, constricted muscles, short/rapid breaths, chest tightness, dilated pupils, sweating, trembling, and difficulty focusing.

This comes in handy when we need to run from danger or fight for our life.  But we also know that our bodies may respond as if we are in danger when, in reality, we are not.  Have you ever woken from a dream in this state? Dreams are proof that mere thoughts can create this response.  Stress is our reaction to an event, situation, or thought, hence the term stress-response. Worry, fear, ruminating thoughts of the past or future, or worst-case scenarios can create this response.  This comes from our 6th/intero sense, our somatic sense.


Processing Stress

Our nervous system is meant to help keep us regulated and functioning to handle whatever is happening in our life.  Our body is meant to handle stress but only for short periods. Ideally, we are idling at a low-level to no-level of stress on a daily basis. When something happens during the day that causes us to stress out for a bit of time, our nervous system revs up its engine a bit to deal with the event/situation, then it calms back down and idles at that low-level again.  The relaxation response is often referred to as “rest and digest”, which is regulated through the parasympathetic nervous system.  

When one experiences chronic stress, this healthy process may be subdued.  Unfortunately, our way of living is causing our nervous systems to be in a constant state of stress so our engines are constantly revved up.  Pent-up energy is held in the body as memory and can appear as physical symptoms, such as pain, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders, nightmares, addictions, phobias, OCD, and PTSD. 

One of the muscles in our body that registers this stress is the PSOAS muscle, also an organ of perception.  The psoas muscle is often referred to as the “fight or flight” muscle or the muscle to the soul. It’s the muscle used to contract or tighten to flee or fight whatever the threat. The psoas muscles allow you to bend your hips and legs towards your chest, for example when climbing stairs or when advancing your leg forward while walking.  It is the only muscle that connects our spine/torso to our legs. 


The Psoas Muscle

The psoas muscle is deep within our core.  It attaches to the diaphragm, 12th thoracic, lumbar vertebrae, and discs, travels through the pelvis to the femur, therefore is closely connected to the central nervous system (CNS) via the fascial system.  With each breath, the psoas and the respiratory diaphragm work together to provide stability to the front of the spine during movement and sitting. This fascial connection of the psoas muscles, diaphragm and spine make it vital to your psychological well-being also.  So it not only connects our ability to walk and breathe but also how you respond to fear and excitement. The psoas muscle also supports your internal organs and works like a pump, pushing blood and lymph in and out of your cells. A large network of lumbar nerves (Enteric nervous system) and blood vessels pass through and around the psoas.  Tightness in the psoas can impede digestion and nerve impulses and blood flow to the muscles in our pelvis and legs, therefore contributing to constipation, menstrual cramping, and sexual dysfunction. The psoas muscle may be the most important muscle in your body, so we need to take care of it!

The psoas is such an important muscle to the overall function in our body. During prolonged periods of stress, your psoas muscle is constantly contracted. This same contraction occurs with prolonged sitting, excessive running/walking/sit-ups, and sleeping in a fetal position.  When tight or overstretched, it can weaken causing many surrounding muscles to compensate and become overused creating a whole myriad of problems including low back, pelvic, and neck pain. According to Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book, “The psoas being intimately involved in the basic physical and emotional reactions, that when chronically tight it continually signals your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.”


Do you have a Psoas Muscle Imbalance?

When you have a tight psoas muscle you may experience pain in your lower back or hips, especially when lifting your legs.  This is caused by the muscle compressing the discs in your lumbar spine due to its attachment to this region. Stretching or releasing the psoas muscle is the best way to prevent this from happening.  

While most people with psoas issues have a tight psoas muscle or muscles, there are some who experience overstretched psoas muscles.  In this case, stretching the psoas muscle can cause more problems. The key is to know whether your psoas is short and tight and thus in need of stretching, or if it's weak and overstretched and in need of strengthening.  

A few ways your body tells you that you have a psoas muscle imbalance includes the following:

Leg length discrepancy. 

A tight psoas may cause your pelvis on the respectful side to rotate forward, causing that leg to rotate inwards.  The opposite leg will then rotate outwards to counter-balance. This will make the affected leg longer, driving it up into your hip socket with each step, potentially leading to a functional leg length discrepancy.  

Postural Problems. 

When the psoas is too short or tight, it can pull your pelvis toward the front, tipping it forward, exaggerating the lumbar curve, in turn, compressing the spine.  When the psoas is overstretched or weak it can flatten the natural curve in the low back, tightening the hamstrings, pulling down on the sit bones, causing the sacrum to lose its natural curve.  This can lead to a low back injury, especially at the intervertebral discs. 


Your kidneys and adrenal glands rest on the psoas like a shelf.  As you breathe properly, the muscles gently massage these organs, stimulating blood flow.  These organs also become imbalanced in conjunction with the psoas muscles causing physical and emotional exhaustion.

Shallow breathing.  

A tight psoas muscle can cause rib thrusting, where you push your rib cage forward usually arching your back.  This causes quick, shallow, chest breathing. It also limits the amount of oxygen taken in and may cause over usage of neck muscles. 


Keeping your Psoas Balanced.

Getting your psoas back in balance can decrease pain and increase relaxation.  Exercise, shoes and unhealed physical and emotional injuries can create an imbalance in your psoas. 

Here are a few tips for getting your psoas back in balance:

Avoid prolonged sitting.

If you must sit for long periods of time, sit with good posture and lower back support, your hips level and slightly higher than your knees.  You may want to put a folded towel lengthwise under your hips to tilt the pelvis forward, lengthening the hamstrings and relaxing the psoas muscles.  Try to get up and move at least every ½ hour.  

Be attentive to your pelvis. 

The psoas muscle length determines the movement of your pelvis.  To determine if the psoas muscles are tight or overstretched, stand sideways by a mirror.  If you were to draw a line from the furthest front point to the furthest back point of your pelvis, it should be parallel to the floor. If the line tips down toward the floor, your psoas muscle may be short or tight.  If the line tips up toward the ceiling, your psoas muscle may be overstretched or weak.  

Get it released. 

Help relieve a tight psoas muscle by getting myofascial release by a seasoned practitioner.  Getting myofascial release on a regular basis helps keep your psoas, and all of your muscles, fluid, balanced, and moving with ease.  


Breathing is the best way to help down-regulate your nervous system. Movement of your diaphragm massages the vagus nerve which helps calm down the “fight or flight” reaction in the body.  This also promotes relaxation of the psoas muscle. Focusing on breath and releasing the psoas can facilitate a reduction in your stress levels. 

Many experts are unaware of the complexity of the psoas muscle, therefore it's not uncommon to be misdiagnosed and given wrong treatments for their psoas-related pain.  Since we cannot control the stressors of what life throws at us, we need to make sure we know how to work with stress in our life.

To learn more about psoas muscle imbalance and treatment of the psoas, visit a seasoned practitioner.  


Erin N. Lindberg, OTR/L

Integrative Therapies & Wellness, LLC

[email protected]

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