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Understanding physical stress part 2.

Understanding physical stress


Understanding physical stress part 2

In the first part of this series we explored the phenomenon of ‘pain’ - discussing how it is the medium through which our body communicates with us. Far from being a negative experience, discomfort and pain should actually been seen as a positive sensation by the virtue they provide us with vital information regarding the ‘state of play’ within our body. Our troubles come from the simple fact that most of us simply do not know how to interpret this information and seek elaborate ways to ignore it. We will continue our journey by examining how this ‘information’ manifests.

When interpreting ‘pain’ we first need to take an objective and unemotional look at how the information is being presented. The ways in which ‘stress’ manifests are very subtle and what appears to be the initial problem is very rarely the root cause: more often than not the villain of the story is lurking, hidden in the shadows. This breeds the need for us to be able to effectively differentiate between a ‘symptom’ and a ‘root cause’. In my experience most people fail to look past their initial problem to see if there is anything deeper under the surface - and this applies equally to both physical and emotional/psychological stress.

Understanding the ways in which stress is subtlety communicated through our being is probably more easily understood by staying within the realms of the physical, although the nature of the beast is as relevant in the highly complex affairs of the mind.

Most people believe the bones of our body are ‘stacked’ on top of one anotherIn order to comprehend the physical medium of pain we need to take a more holistic perspective on how our body functions. Most people believe the bones of our body are ‘stacked’ on top of one another in much the same manner as bricks are laid to build a house. In reality our bones have no integrity on their own - forming only one element of our physical structure. For example in my treatment room I have a skeleton called ‘Benito’ who is held erect by a series of rods and screws without which he’d be nothing but a pile of bones on the floor. Underneath our skin our structural integrity bears a far closer resemblance to a suspension bridge than a house of bricks – our bones are literally ‘suspended’ within a complex arrangement of cables formed by our muscles, tendons and ligaments.

In the book ‘Anatomy Trains’, the famous structural bodyworker Tom Myers likens the human structure to that of a sailboat. The central component of the sailboat is the mast from which the sail is suspended. With sailing most people overlook the importance that the rigging attached to the mast plays in the structural strength of the boat – without the rigging the mast of the boat would be ripped out of the deck as soon as it catches a strong wind. It is through the rigging that the force of the wind is distributed and transferred across the hull of the boat. When wind blows hard from the left it will cause the mast to bend to right and it is the rigging on left hand side of the boat that prevents the mast from being torn from the deck – the rigging on the left hand side of the boat tightens to stabilise the mast. In an infinitely more complicated manner this process is replicated in human beings.

think of our spine as being the mast of the sailboat and the muscles as the riggingIf we think of our spine as being the mast of the sailboat and the muscles as the rigging we can begin to build a picture of how a body responds physically to stress being applied to it. If you lean forward the rigging (muscles) in our back need to tighten to stabilise us from falling forwards – likewise leaning backwards will cause a tightening in muscles of the front. Like the mast of a ship any movement in the spine off its central axis will cause a tightening in a part of the ‘rigging’ as it fulfils its job of keeping the spine upright. The more you pull on the ‘rigging’ the tighter it will become and the tighter it becomes the more ‘pull’ will be placed on the mast. It is this a vicious cycle that creates most of our postural problems.

Staying with the sailboat analogy we can begin to see a distinction between a symptom and its root cause. If we imagine that we have a mischievous deck hand who finds it amusing to tighten the rigging at the front of our boat, over time we will start to see a dysfunction. Every time the rigging at the front of the boat is tightened it will pull the mast forwards creating a stress on the rigging at the rear. If our deckhand continues his games, eventually something will have to snap, either the rigging at the front, whose tension is being deliberately sabotaged or perhaps the rigging towards the rear that is innocently trying to perform its role in life. Now if we were to diagnose the problem in the rigging we could very easily say that the problem is the rigging at the rear that has become too tight. To fix the problem we could slacken it, but obviously the problem would eventually return, as the rigging at the front is still too tight.

the real problem might not actually be a ‘bad back’Moving back to the human body where chronic back pain plagues us, we can begin to see that the real problem might not actually be a ‘bad back’ but something else within ‘rigging’ pulling too tightly. It might be in our back that we notice the problem, but that strain maybe caused from elsewhere. The symptom is what we present, but more often than not it is simply an indicator of a deeper problem that has been developing slowly and subtly over a long period of time.

When diagnosing physical problems it is very easy to go straight in and ease the symptom that will provide short-term relief, but failing to address the initial problems means that the symptom is doomed to return. As with the problem on our boat, unless we identify the root cause we will continue to suffer. To understand what our body is telling us, we need to understand that the stress we are experiencing is actually our body’s way of telling us it has a need that is not being addressed, but we also need to understand that the ‘need’ might not be as obvious as it initially appears.

In the next article we will build on the concept that our pain is actually our body’s way of expressing a need and expand this concept into our psychological and emotional well-being.

Gavin King is Shiatsu Practitioner and Tai Chi Instructor based in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. He can be contacted via his websites: or

(Also see Understanding physical stress Part 1)

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Picture Credits
Raising the Sail © Photographer:Anthony Harris |

Woman With Back Pain © Photographer:Crystalvis |

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