On the Ground

Soften Up

Self-massage to combat a hypervigilant nervous system, caused by the chronic fear of catching COVID-19 By Dr. Blessyl Buan
  • Photo by Stewart Maclean, courtesy of Unsplash

For more than a year, dancers have processed grief from cancelled shows, interrupted training schedules and the inability to socialize. Moreover, the chronic fear of catching COVID-19 forges a hypervigilant nervous system that locks the ease of breath and movement. When this is left unchecked, artistry is stalled. 

Self-massaging with props is a way to reconnect your mind to your body. These self-care rituals can release muscular tension resulting from stress and improve joint mobility.


Reconnect with your breath

Tension in the glottis in your throat is found to have a direct correlation to tension in the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. When your breath is relaxed, these three “slings” should lengthen as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Let’s try it now: grind your teeth. What do you observe? Are you able to breathe? Where else in your body are you carrying your tension? Once you discover where your tension lies, you can decide to release it. A helpful visualization exercise to accompany self-massage techniques is to imagine planting a flower in the areas of muscular tension. As you inhale, visualize the flower blooming. As you exhale, visualize the flower gently closing its petals. Experience the tightness melting away from your body. Repeat the exercise as often as you need throughout the day.


Unclench your jaw

Grinding your teeth or gripping your tongue to the roof of the mouth is a postural adaptation to being aware of our surroundings or persevering through prolonged discomfort. Over time, this negatively impacts the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Symptoms of TMJ dysfunction appear as painful clicking or catching in the jaw and pain that radiates to the eye, cheek, teeth or neck. 

Stretch Tip: When you find yourself gripping your jaw, consciously release it. When you’re at home or somewhere else where it’s safe to remove your mask, begin the following exercises to stretch the muscles that surround your jaw and mouth: 

a) Open mouth wide to make an “AH.” 

b) Open mouth wide with vocalization. This also releases tension from the glottis, which will influence your neck tension in a positive way. You can sing “La la la” or “AHHHHHH.”

c) Open mouth to vocalize or mimic “EEEEE.”

d) Open mouth to vocalize or mimic “OOOOOOHHHHH.”

Massage Tip: After performing these stretches, you can use a small ball approximately two inches in diameter and gently roll it in circular motions around the chewing muscles on the sides of your cheeks (the masseter muscles) as well as the sides of your head (temporalis muscles) with an unclenched jaw. Repeat on the other side.


Release your neck and back

It’s common under chronic stress to experience neck pain, headaches and backaches. The neck muscles such as the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius muscles generate resting tension when breath is shallow due to stress. The low back musculature can also be tight and deconditioned as a result of reduced training schedules over the pandemic. 

Massage Tip: Lie on your back with your knees bent. Starting at your neck, place any kind of rubber ball about three inches in diameter along the midline of your spine. Find the sore spot and allow the weight of your body to release the tension against the ball as you breathe slowly. Turn your head from side to side or nod up and down slowly. When that tension releases, you can find another position along your spine. If you have two balls to work with, you can place both balls on either side of the spine starting at the mid-back. Continue scanning and releasing tension in your body while using the breath visualization technique mentioned above.


Self-massage your hand and wrist

Reducing tension in your hands and wrists is important for gesturing and weight bearing with the upper body.

Massage Tip: Clasp your hands together by intertwining your fingers. Place a small ball in between the muscular part of your thumbs. This muscle group is called thenar. Roll the ball in circles with the support of both hands to self-massage the areas of your hand and wrists that hold tension. Repeat as needed.

The pandemic’s impact on the performing arts has been a tough experience. Self-massage techniques paired with breath are helpful to reduce sensations of overwhelm in the body. If you experience persistent pain, stress or muscular tension, reach out to your community and a regulated health-care provider to help give you the support that you need to feel better.


Dr. Blessyl Buan is a Toronto-based chiropractor, dance artist and mom of four. She is the founder of BIPOC Dance Health.

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