Slowly, quietly you approach your prey, with every step a crucial component of your strategy. You are closing in — 50 yards, 40 yards, 35. Groowwl, grrroowwll, groowwl, ROOAAARRRR! You are face to face with a grizzly. Your body tenses. Your heart rate skyrockets. Your breathing quickens. Your face tightens. Your shoulders surround your neck. You drop to the ground in a tight ball. You wait. RROOAAARRRR! RROOAARR! groowwl, grrroowwl, growl. He miraculously moves on. Your body is still in full defense mode. Then very slowly releasing the tension and returning to normal.
If you have ever been within a short grizzly sprint or any similar life-threatening scenario, your body immediately fired into a “fight or flight” response. Fight or flight is an instantaneous response to life-threatening situations that immediately trigger hormonal changes and physiological responses to either fight the threat or run from it. Once the threat has passed, we return to our pre-stress state.
Whether or not you have been in such a life-threatening situation, your body has launched into a fight or flight survival mode. It may have been a close call on the highway, a family emergency or pressure at work. The difference between an actual life-threatening stress and typical daily stresses is the daily stresses continue, not allowing our bodies to return to their pre-stressor levels. The result of extended stress can cause a multitude of health problems including heart attacks, strokes and weight gain. Additionally, our muscles increasingly tighten, primarily in the shoulders and neck. Without knowing we are in a continuing state of fight of flight, we likely won’t recognize the connection that the tension is due to our constant stressors.
The three most often used words you will hear me say in class or with a client are “Drop those shoulders,” and many have no idea why or even realize their shoulders are elevated. The absence of stress relief causes the shoulders to crowd the neck because the elevator scapula and trapezius muscles are unable to relax. You might say the shoulders are the guests who have long outlasted their stay leaving you with a stiff neck, tight shoulders and often pain.
The muscles that lift the shoulders are the levator scapula, literally “lift the scapula,” where the scapula are commonly called the shoulder blades. The two trapezius muscles of the upper back tilt and turn the head and neck, raise, lower depress, rotate and pull the shoulder blades together. To begin relief in the shoulders and neck, start with the basics.
First, take a break. Without removing the stressors in your life, you won’t find relief, even with stretching. You may in the short term, but soon they will tense again. Below are some simple, yet effective neck and shoulder stretches.
Begin with slow neck rotations drawing a circle with your nose. Be sure not to extend the neck too far to avoid cervical disc compression. About four in each direction should be plenty. Next, do some shoulder rolls forward and backward, about five each direction.
Gentle neck pull. Take your right ear to the right shoulder with your shoulders down. Reach your left hand behind your back, put your right hand over the left ear and gently pull the head to the right. Hold about 10 seconds then stretch the other side and repeat on both sides.
Check your deodorant. Starting from the neck pull position, turn you head down at an angle with your nose and eyes aimed toward your armpit. Hold and repeat as above.
Stick ‘em ups. Stand a few inches from a wall with your bottom and shoulder blades touching the wall and your neck neutral keeping your head off the wall. Take your arms out to the sides and bend your elbows up to 90 degrees with the back of your hands on the wall — as if someone said, “stick ’em up.” Slowly rotate your arms forward and back to the wall 10 times.
Wall angels. Starting as above, press the back of your hands and forearms into the wall. Slowly raise your arms keeping full contact with the wall. Stop the motion just before any part of your arm or hand lifts from the wall.
Open the chest muscles as they are pulling your shoulders and neck forward. The easiest and most relaxing way to release the chest is lie on the floor with a rolled towel along the spine and rest for at least a minute — the longer, the better.
When your muscles begin releasing, which could take a few weeks, it will be time to add some simple exercises to strengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders back and down. But first, take this week to do the stretches and next week we will add the exercises.
Until then, avoid your grizzly encounters — those in the wild, the car, at home, at work and elsewhere.
Sherrie Hebert is a certified personal trainer and Pilates mat and equipment Instructor. She teaches and trains at Performance Pilates and Gold’s Gym of Pocatello. As an established Idaho State Journal columnist, Sherrie has provided health and fitness information and guidance to her readers for nearly four years. Contact her at 208-317-5685 or email@example.com and visit her Facebook page, Performance Pilates & and Personal Training.