You May Be Storing Trauma in Your Hips
Whether it's the chest, pelvis or back, the belief was always that trauma was assigned to different areas of the body by the brain. As medical science moved forward significantly in the early 20th century, Hungarian-born neurologist and psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, the founder of all relationship-based psychoanalysis and a colleague of Sigmund Freud's, theorized that traumatic life experiences can be found in what is now called "body memories."
Body memories include past experiences or sensations that activate brain networks and body signals. Positive experiences may consist of a handshake, a hug from a friend or a massage. However, the body can also internalize negative experiences such as moments of anger, fear and violence.
A research study on clinical manifestations of body memories, published in May 2022 in the journal Brain Sciences, indicated that past bodily experiences can be encoded and stored, and they eventually reappear as mental health problems and somatic memories.
Known as "the muscle of the soul" in yoga practice, the psoas muscle (pronounced "so-as") is believed to hold traumatic memories that can be stored for years, influencing your behavior as well as your perception of pain.
Let's speak to the experts and learn how at-home exercises can release stored trauma and help relieve somatic symptoms formed in body memories.
What is the psoas muscle?
The psoas major is a significant muscle located in the vertebral column and lower pelvis. The deeper part of the muscle attaches to the femur. Some of its primary functions include flexing the hip and torso and stabilizing the spine. As a result, pain from the psoas muscle often presents in hip or back pain.
Iliopsoas syndrome, or psoas syndrome, is a result of trauma and overuse of the psoas muscle, resulting in radiating pain in the legs, lower back spasms, difficulty standing upright and groin pain. The syndrome is most common in athletes as a result of repetitive hip flexion.
However, psoas muscle pain can occur in the general population as well. Donovan Smolich, a sports chiropractor based in Tukwila, Washington, noted that muscle overuse can result in tightness and suggested a way you can check for a tight psoas muscle yourself.
"Start by lying flat, flex one knee up and the opposite leg straight down," he explained. "If the straight leg goes up or feels tight, that can indicate a tight psoas. It often gets tight from sitting daily. It's often one of the main causes for low back or hip pain from tilting the pelvis forward."
Aside from physical distress, the psoas is used for the clinical assessment of mood and stress disorders. Unlike other body memories, trauma is stored and retained for longer periods of time and can be relived through somatic memory.
What is somatic memory?
Somatic is defined as relating to the body. Muscles maintain somatic memory, provoking thoughts of events when touched, and based on past experiences, the brain constructs the posture and location of the body when the events happened. A 2002 study on trauma and memory reported traumatic experiences are stored longer because of their high emotional charge.
Unlike other memories that slowly disintegrate in accuracy over time, traumatic memories are retained and may return as flashbacks. As a result, trauma is revisited, resulting in a reaction from the nervous system.
"Muscles can store trauma from being stressed," Smolich said. "When stress occurs, you get into a state called 'fight or flight.' It changes your brain and affects your muscles. An example would be when you're afraid. It causes your muscles to get ready to fight and run. This often can cause an emotion to get trapped within the muscles."
Storing trauma and sexual trauma
About 70 percent of individuals in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Additionally, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime.
Tadd Terry, a chiropractic specialist based in Phoenix, explained how collective trauma can result in somatic symptoms and damage the body.
"We have three types of stress or trauma that can cause injury to our tissues," Terry said. "Most people recognize physical and chemical trauma as these. The third component many fail to consider is emotional trauma, which can also have a role in tissue damage. Whatever type of trauma our tissues may experience, trauma can manifest itself in the associated tissue via tenderness, tightness, weakness or any number of ways depending on the person and situation."
Additionally, somatic symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, constipation, palpitations, and joint and muscle pain may present in individuals with trauma.
For individuals with sexual trauma, somatic symptoms may be stored in other areas, such as the pelvic floor. Like the psoas muscle, the pelvic floor may succumb to a fight or flight response, causing pelvic overactivity.
"Opening the pelvis will help a lot with vaginismus and sexual trauma," Smolich said. "What can help relax the area are stretches and even specific chiropractic adjustments to open the pelvis. Other helpful methods would be yoga and meditation to help you get out of fight or flight."
Psoas muscle release videos have recently been trending on TikTok for their immediate emotional responses, leaving users asking why individuals may be crying when they leave the chiropractor.
"She starts crying during emotional muscle release," Smolich said, based on his posts on social media. "She's not in pain at all. It's just releasing a lot of emotional tension that has been kept for years."
Body memories can also be triggered when specific parts of the body are touched, massaged or stretched, releasing both physical and emotional tension. As a result, high stress levels can result in crying, a completely normal response among people who get massages.
"Since the psoas muscle is used so often and integral to many of our everyday activities, someone may experience a heightened experience," Terry explained. "In theory, a reaction like this may occur when someone has had immense amounts of built-up stress that has gone untreated for years. One could experience an overwhelming release to the entire system that could even cause a massive rush of endorphins and emotional response."
Exercises to relieve trauma stored in the body
There are a wide variety of video tutorials online—from YouTube to Instagram to TikTok—including at-home hip-opening techniques to release tension in the psoas muscle.
"To find your psoas, find your belly button and move about two inches laterally," Smolich said. "Press down on the muscle with your fingers. This most likely may feel tender. Move your leg up and down while pressing down. Finally, hold for about two minutes to get a good release."
"One stretch that I do like is called the psoas inhibition," Terry said. "While on your back, bend your legs 90 degrees with the bottom of your feet on the floor. Lift your toes, then push with your quads as if you were trying to slide your entire body toward your head. Try not to activate your hamstrings or psoas muscles. Do this for five seconds, three sets of 10 repetitions at least once a day until you start to feel a difference."
If at-home exercises do not relieve psoas pain, it's important to see a doctor, physical therapist or psoas specialist, especially if your symptoms begin to get worse.