Managing stress and tension to heal gut and brain from chronic Lyme
One thing Lyme disease teaches us relentlessly is where we hold stress and tension in our bodies. There’s always something legitimate to feel stressed about – especially for those of us in the long process of healing from chronic Lyme.
(Bio weapons, anyone? I haven’t yet read the book Bitten, about the possibility of tick-borne pathogens being developed by the Pentagon, because I don’t want to freak out! I need more practice managing my stress first.)
Where we grip in our bodies is where we’re more likely to experience symptoms. Tight tissue restricts circulation of blood and lymph. Bacteria, mold, viruses, fungi, toxins and other evils hide out in tight tissue, where our immune systems can’t wash them away as easily. Wherever our bugs are living, we feel unwell.
We can’t eliminate stress from our lives, and we can’t do away with our human tendency to tighten when stressed. What we can do is begin to notice how and where we hold tension, and consciously release. With practice, we can notice tension and release it sooner – preventing chronic buildup of tight muscles, organs and tissue.
For me, Lyme continues to be a world-class education in self-awareness. Thanks to Lyme, I know I unconsciously carry stress in my belly. If something stressful happens to me (if I read a scary book, or even if my kids are too loud at the dinner table) I can check in. Sure enough, I am usually squeezing my stomach tight.
It has become a sort of daily meditation for me to keep checking in, and keep releasing my habitual holding patterns, no matter what is happening around me. It’s always a surprise how this practice of releasing can lessen symptoms for me in the moment.
Tension in the stomach can lead to digestive problems and anxiety
It’s well known that the gut and the brain are pretty much inseparable. They are directly linked through the vagus nerve. Both have gazillions of neurons, and are exquisitely tuned to stress and to each other. Functional medicine doctors even believe many forms of mental illness have a pathogenic component.
Since I was little, digestion has been an issue for me, and so has anxiety. Pathogens I picked up in India as a baby contribute, and so does my habit of holding tension in my stomach. After a tick bit me on the belly in 2014, digestion became impossible, and my anxiety went through the roof. I was forced to take a more conscious approach to stress to help myself heal.
Many people share my tendency to hold the belly tight. It’s a common “fight or flight” response to tighten around the solar plexus under stress. This central area of the body is where the long iliopsoas muscle (used in running) attaches to the diaphragm (used for deep breathing).
If we were about to flee or kick rump, both actions would need strength. Since most of us don’t have a regular practice of releasing trauma or even everyday stress, our tight belly tends to stay tight long term, This makes the gut an easier spot for pathogens to hide, and contributes to all sorts of issues with digestion, elimination, and mental health.
Keeping our nervous systems in the “rest, digest, and heal” parasympathetic state–the opposite of “fight or flight”–requires relaxing around the solar plexus and belly.
When we breathe deeply, our bodies relax. Deep breathing tells our whole nervous system that it’s safe to spend energy on digestion and healing. It also keeps food, toxins and pathogens moving through our digestive tract – down, out and away! And we all know this is essential to healing Lyme.
Breathing is healing
Here is a simple breathing exercise to release tension from the diaphragm. It will begin to relax your entire nervous system and your digestion. It will also massage your gut and improve motility.
Put your hands along your lower rib cage, where the bones end and your belly begins. Under your hands lies your diaphragm, the muscle that helps the lungs contract and expand with your breath. Allow your diaphragm to expand on your inhale, and contract as you exhale.
This is called diaphragmatic breathing.(Dare to grow a belly! Often the reason we hold here has to do with stress around body image.)
Diaphragmatic breathing can take practice. It’s amazing how unconscious stress shuts down our ability to breathe deeply. Luckily, you can do this practice anywhere: in line for groceries, across the table from your family, in bed reading. Unless you are working out, this area should be soft, and softly moving with your breath. This is one of the first and best ways to encourage healing from within.
Meditation to soothe your belly and diaphragm
This practice is best done in bed before falling asleep, or just after waking. That super sleepy, almost dreaming mental state helps you drop in to physical sensations, and sometimes to explore the reasons you’re holding tension in the first place.
Lay a hand over your solar plexus. Feel the warmth of your hand as it penetrates your belly. Feel your breath rise and fall under your hand. You can softly move your hand if you like, or just rest it on your body.
Tune in to all the little sensations that come and go in your solar plexus, inviting deeper and deeper relaxation. Imagine your stomach itself softening and relaxing. You are mostly made of water. Water and energy. Let your mind rest in the easy, changing sensations.
Emotion and memory in the third chakra
In this dreamy state, memories or emotions may surface, as though from within your solar plexus. This is your third chakra, associated with identity, confidence, and personal power. Experiences of being criticized or put down, or fears surrounding your own worth or capability can be buried here.
I like to use mantras in this dreamy state, and see how they resonate in my body. This morning, with my hand on my solar plexus, I tried out, “I am capable of healing 100%.”
At first, I noticed some tension in my third chakra as I said the words. The tension reflected a fear that I’m not capable of fully healing. It’s a great opportunity when we notice these deep fears held in our bodies! We aren’t stuck with them. As they become conscious, we can release them.
I practiced by accepting that of course I have this fear. Lyme is darn hard to heal, and sometimes it seems to be taking forever. I took the time to feel that, acknowledging it, validating my feelings.
Then, after a while, I gave my body permission to let the fear go. I watched the sensations, and tried my mantra again. “I am capable of healing 100%.”
After a while, the mantra began to have a softening effect on my third chakra. When I finished, my solar plexus felt expansive, tingly, full of good energy. This is the flow of blood, lymph and digestion. It’s what it feels like to release held tension.
Create your own healing meditation practice
You can play around and create whatever variety of practice works for your mind and body. There is no right or wrong way – any form of relaxation is beneficial. If you hear gurgling in your stomach as you practice, you are on the right track! This is a sign that your body is entering “rest, digest and heal” mode. Go with it.
In my experience this kind of practice is a wonderful support for Lyme disease treatment. I also like the idea that I will hopefully emerge into remission a more relaxed and easy-going person! If there’s any chance of a silver lining to Lyme, I’ll take it.
Shona Curley lives in San Francisco with her family. She owns Hasti Pilates, where she works privately with people with Lyme, and www.redkitemeditations.com, where she blogs about healing tools and offers healing meditations for Lyme.