The Anthropomorphic Connection
Physical and Psychological Benefits of Connective Tissue
Recently, there was a beautiful article on scar tissue in Massage & Bodywork (July/August 2020, page 52) titled “Scar Tissue: Not Breakable, But Changeable” by Catherine Ryan. In it, Ryan explored the deep iceberg that lives underneath the scars we see. She unraveled the collagen and elastin that define how the fascia operates, and she pondered the “tensile strength of steel” of the connective tissue that has us wondering whether we really can do anything.
In that same issue, Til Luchau opened his doors to let us listen in (and by listen, I mean read the transcript) on a meaningful conversation he had with Robert Schleip, PhD. These two leaders in the field of Rolfing intricately understand fascia. Their discussion about what happens to the fascial network in relation to the nervous system, and how fascia responds differently under anesthesia, shed some light on how much of our “life energy” is actually in our physical tissues.
We so often approach this topic empirically, but the data and findings leave us baffled. Can we really influence how connective tissue acts? Why is it that when you relieve tissues of the nervous system component (under anesthesia) they act differently? The science is amazing and I, alongside Ryan, Luchau, and Schleip, am obsessed with it.
I am fascinated with the similarities of how our physical tissues operate with the workings of our inner, more emotional selves. The idea of tissues having anthropomorphic qualities—like muscles working together as a group of friends might; with all the love and drama of a group of teenagers, or the thought that one muscle takes over the responsibilities for another; with all the control issues of a corporate manager with OCD—seems to offer a different perspective on some of these seemingly unanswerable questions.
Scars, as Ryan’s article points out—and as Darren Buford echoed in his editor’s note in the same issue—are “cool as cucumbers” on the surface but often hide the emotional component that comes with the other facets of life. This concept resonates deeply for me. Scar tissue extends beyond what we see and feel. Its tendrils creep into every layer of who we are; the physical tissues that are rooted like the Kennedy family tree, but also the mental, emotional, and spiritual layers that aren’t as easily traceable. There is no 23andMe app for that.
When connective tissue binds to create a scar, it is essentially remodeling us—or putting us back together after something has broken. Once it has remodeled, there is a full-fledged, all-hands-on-deck, group effort to get back to “normal.” True, scars create a bind. True, that bind is limiting. And true, those limitations can prevent a healthy flow of the various vessels trying to carry their various components (blood, lymph, nerve impulses, etc.). We want to regain what we lost. But getting back to “normal” is a much bigger task than simply reestablishing range of motion.
LETTING THE SCAR BE
So, what if we approach scar tissue in the same way we approach a global pandemic? Maybe we thought we were ready. Maybe we were completely blindsided. In either scenario, we have to shift how we live. We change how we work, eat, shop, socialize, and, most importantly, how we think. No longer are we free to move around the world. We are now taking into consideration how this new factor dictates our every decision.
How we operate in the world once a pandemic hits, once we experience pain, once we sustain an injury, is paralleled in how we connect. Connection, the very foundation of what makes us feel safe, changes. When that safety is threatened, our first instinct is to fight like hell to get it back. Sometimes, though, we have no choice. Sometimes we have to accept this new way of life and learn to live differently.
There is, without a doubt, a deep desire within all of us to feel connected. We crave a sense of belonging—a core group of individuals who make us feel loved, taken care of, and safe. Connection is at the essence of what helps us feel normal. It holds us when we fall into anxiety or fear. It calms us when we harbor anger. It offers a safety net to the pits of loneliness.
Connective tissue offers the same benefits. Its job is to hold, insulate, and protect—to serve our basic needs and help us feel normal. Too much connection and we feel smothered. In the same way a teenager might grow irritated when a parent wants to dive into a confusing emotion, scar tissue can grip too tightly. But if the muscles are not safe—if that teenager fell in with the wrong crowd—that scar tissue better do its job. In this instance, leave the scar be. Let it grip and protect. It is better than the alternative.
Our job, as bodyworkers, is to know when the scar tissue is right or when the angry tissue underneath is right. The detailed work of scar tissue is remarkable. But if the work isn’t working, maybe that tensile strength of steel isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe the work, then, becomes about teaching the other tissues how to play nicely with the new kid on the block.
Finding a new normal can often be the key to happiness. Perhaps it also holds the secrets to wellness. Stay connected. Hold on. But not too tightly. Keep listening. The tissues are telling us everything we need to know.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” —William James