This past weekend, I was fortunate to work with an incredible group of practitioners at a Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course in my home city of Atlanta. I always leave these weekends renewed, excited, and yes, somewhat exhausted ;-). Not only do I get to teach with some pretty incredible colleagues (in this case, Sara Reardon– the VAGINA WHISPERER!!, and Darla Cathcart–who literally is the reason why I practice pelvic health!), but I also get the opportunity to see the transformation of clinicians who start the weekend a little nervous about the possibility of seeing a vulva, and end the weekend confident and empowered to start helping people who are experiencing pelvic floor problems. (Ok, some may not be 100% confident–but definitely on the road to confidence! ;-))
One of my favorite research studies of all time (yes, I am that nerdy) is always shared at this course with participants. This study by van der Velde and Everaerd examined the response of the pelvic floor muscles to perceived threat, comparing women who have vaginismus (painful vaginal penetration) compared to women who don’t.
Throughout my clinical career, the concept of stress and threat worsening pelvic floor problems has been a consistent thread. I frequently hear:
“My job has been so incredibly stressful this week. I am in so much pain today.”
“Everything started this past year…during that time, my parents had been very sick and it was a very emotionally and sometimes physical stressful time for me”
“I’ve been having a severe flare-up of my pain. Do you think the stress that I’ve been dealing with in going through a divorce/break-up/job change/move/new baby/new house/etc. etc. etc. could be related to this?”
Honestly, I could go on and on with continued statements like this. Stress is a complicated topic, and there are many factors involved that can contribute to an alteration or increase in symptoms when a person is in a persistent stressful situation. So, back to my favorite study. In this study, the researchers had the participants watch four different film excerpts that were considered to be: neutral, threatening, sexually threatening or erotic. They then recorded the response of the pelvic floor muscles using EMG. The results of this study were fascinating. They found that with both the threatening stimulus(which happened to be an excerpt from the movie Jaws) and the sexually threatening stimulus (which was an excerpt from a TV movie called Without her Consent–which frankly, sounds awful to me!) the pelvic floor muscles demonstrated increased muscle activity. And this was true in both the groups of women who had vaginismus and the groups of women who did not. (side note: they also saw that the upper traps had this same activation pattern! Makes sense, right?)
Fascinating right? So, what does this mean? I always tell patients that the pelvic floor can be like a threat-o-meter. When a person is experiencing a threat–this can be a physical or emotional threat– the pelvic floor will respond. You can imagine then what happens when that stressful situation or threat stays around for a long period of time! This knowledge alone can sometimes be so empowering for people in better understanding why their bodies might be responding the way that they are.
So what can we do about it?
If you are dealing with pelvic floor muscle overactivity problems or pain, and you find yourself in a stressful or threatening period of time in life, try these ideas:
- Be mindful of what is happening in your body: I encourage people to do regular “check-ins” or body scans throughout the day to feel how their pelvic floor muscles and other muscles might be activating. If you feel any muscles gripping, try to see if you can consciously soften and let go of tension you might feel. After doing this, try to take a slow long breath in and out thinking of letting tension release.
- Remember that self-care is actually self-less: Taking care of our own needs allows us to better care for the needs of those around us. Remember the last time you flew in a plane– secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you! Self-care can mean making time in your day for regular exercise, taking steps to ensure you get the right nutrition you need to feel healthy, taking a break for yourself when you need it, being conscious about following the recommendations given to you by your pelvic PT 😉 or spending time doing a guided meditation or relaxation exercise.
- Drop it like it’s hot: Your pelvic floor, that is. Several times throughout the day, consciously think about letting your pelvic floor drop and lengthen. If you have a hard time feeling what your muscles are doing, you can try performing a small (think 10-25%) activation first and then think about letting go of any muscle activity.
- Don’t be an island: Know that there are so many resources to help you if you need them! Working with a skilled psychologist or counselor can be incredibly beneficial to many people! And, if your pelvic floor is giving you some problems, always remember that you can go see a pelvic PT– yes, even if you had worked with one in the past! We are always here to help you get through life’s hurdles! Sometimes people end up needing little “refresher courses” along the way to help when the body needs it.
So, what are your favorite ways to manage stress? Fellow PTs- how do you help patients handle flare-ups that happen when life starts to get stressful?
I love to hear from you, and meet you! Always feel free to reach out to me here! If you would like to take a course with me, check out the schedule listed on my For Professionals page! I hope to meet you in person soon!