Several recent clients have been surprised by how tender the muscles at the base of their skull felt when we worked there. I also noticed this part of my anatomy on the last few miles of a recent ride on my road bike. I started feeling my neck getting stiff.
The muscles in question are the suboccipitals. There are four of them and they connect your skull to the spine and are also connected to your eyes. They help tip your head toward your shoulder, among other actions. When the suboccipitals are tight, you could experience headaches, neck tightness, or even back pain.
Common posture habits can contribute to issues with the suboccipitals. Typical culprits are forward head posture or habitually tipping your chin up (to look through bifocals or at a computer monitor).
Note how this rider’s head is tipped up to see the road.
To reduce tightness in the suboccipitals, some options to try include these easy things.
- Pay attention to your posture (Rolf Line) – if your head is forward, bring it back into alignment.
- Confirm that your computer monitor is at an ergonomic height. Usually, this means the top of the screen is at or below eye level.
- Notice if you tend to tip your chin up and bring it back to level.
- Make sure your glasses are properly adjusted.
- Avoid holding your phone between your head and shoulder.
For more relief, you can also use 2 tennis balls in a sock to massage the base of your skull. For instructions and photos, refer to this post by Strength on Demand.
Do you meditate, practice yoga or tai chi, or do another mind-body practice? If so, you have probably noticed that these types of activities help reduce stress. Recent research from Coventry University has identified one way that such mindfulness practices help your body.
This study is from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement. Lead investigator Ivana Buric says,
These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, [Mind-Body Interventions] cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.
People who practice a mindful activity experience changes in their bodies. These changes benefit health by decreasing the production of proteins that cause inflammation. Inflammation is useful in the short term to boost the immune system and fight infections. However, chronic inflammation is linked to a higher risk of some diseases and mental health conditions.
Are you ready to experience the physical and mental benefits of a mind-body practice for yourself? Community education, faith communities and online resources are all ways to access classes and videos to guide your efforts. You may want to try several options to find the activity that is right for you.
Does your brain produce a lot of negative internal chatter? If so, it may be because the part of our brain that is the center for emotions, the amygdala, uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences or threats. This can result in our focusing more on the negative, even if we are experiencing as many – or more – positive things. This tendency is part of the human condition. While it still has usefulness in modern life, for many of us this system is over-active.
Our inner critic is looking for problems. However, we don’t need to listen to it. Being nicer to ourselves is a good strategy to improve our well-being and reduce stress. We can learn how to do this even if it is not our natural tendency.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher who specializes in self-compassion, says it has three parts:
- Self-kindness: “Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.”
- Recognizing our experiences are part of the shared human experience
- Being mindful or non-judgemental
Learn more tips, watch videos and find additional resources at Dr. Neff’s Self Compassion website.
Negativity also has an impact on the people around us. For tips on how to counter this in the workplace, see this blog post from Psychology Today: Are We Hardwired to be Positive or Negative?
When you feel stressed, anxious or just have tight muscles, how do you approach improving how you feel? What about when your mind is busy or you can’t fall asleep? One option that can be beneficial in many situations is to work with the breath. By changing the pattern of your inhalations and exhalations, you can recruit the calming part of your nervous system. This is the parasympathic, or rest and digest, system.
A technique that I like is to extend the length of the exhalation compared to the duration of the inhalation. First, see what your normal breathing pattern is. Simply observing your breath, breathe in and out through your nose. Count to yourself or time how long the inhalation takes, then the exhalation. Now you know your baseline.
If the exhalation is already the longer portion, you have a good start. If not, the initial step will be to increase the length of the exhalation just slightly. The long-term goal is for the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation. It will probably take some time with consistent practice to achieve that 1:2 ratio.
Extend the exhalation exercise
Note: Stop and return to your normal breathing at any time if you feel uncomfortable.
- Sit upright or lie in a comfortable position.
- Take a normal breath in through the nose, counting or timing its length.
- Allow your breath to gently go out through the nose, counting or timing its length.
- If metering the breath out through your nose is difficult, then breathe out through pursed lips or through a straw instead (you will need to hold the straw with one hand). As you become more adept at this exercise, it is likely you will be able to shift to breathing out through the nose.
- At first, just try to have the exhalation a little longer than the inhalation. Eventually, work up to a 1:2 ratio. Do not extend the exhalation any more than twice the length of the inhalation.
- Repeat this pattern a total of 5 times. When you are confident in being able to maintain the pattern, you can gradually increase your practice time to 3-5 minutes.
- Return to normal breathing and observe how your body and mind feel.
A home practice of yoga can provide many benefits. It can help maintain the effects of structural integration and other bodywork, help reduce and manage stress, and help manage pain. A few minutes of yoga done several days a week is a worthwhile investment in your overall health.
I’ve found, however, that students and clients seem at a loss in deciding what poses to practice on their own. With too many choices, the idea is often put aside. One recommendation I have is to practice the sun salutation sequence. It includes a good assortment of poses and takes about 8 minutes to complete if you use this video by Yoga Vidya.
Another plus is that the sequence can easily be modified to accommodate limitations. A variation done while seated takes only 2 minutes (Tara Blackburn, Wilmington, NC).
I had lunch with friends today, some whom have plans this year for major life overhauls related to their diet and health. January 1st is a popular time to start new, healthy habits. I’ve done it, myself.
At home afterwards, I was browsing the archives of Zen Habits. As you may know, Leo Babauta has made many significant changes in his life over the course of time. However, he wrote a post last February called “You’re Not Doing Life Wrong.” I thought it was a nice reminder to be gentle with ourselves. Maybe all those resolutions are not strictly necessary. He says:
There’s an everpresent underlying feeling that most of us have that we could be doing things better. That we’re not sure how to live life. That we’re doing things wrong. … Now see how you are enough. Just as you are. Without any need for improvement. You are also a wonder, exactly enough.
I hope 2016 will be a year in which you will see the wonder in yourself and truly flourish!
Here are two quotations from a book I’ve mentioned previously. It’s by Mayo Clinic doctor Amit Sood and is called Train Your Brain, Engage Your Heart, Transform Your Life. He calls it a course in Attention and Interpretation Therapy or cultivating heartfulness. More commonly, it’s mindfulness.
Most people who are happy do not look at happiness as a primary goal. They are happy because they enjoy what they do (pre- or post-retirement), are closely bonded with their loved ones, and have a general sense of who they are and what is the purpose of their lives. Happiness is a byproduct of the choices you make.
Do not postpone joy waiting for a day when life will be perfect and all your stressors will be gone. Your opportunity to live the best life you can is in this very moment.
This book seems to have now been republished in two parts, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living and The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness.
Resilient Living website – Dr Sood’s online program and blog