Tension sits in our bodies.
As we are exposed to a stressful situation, our brains automatically start off their fight- flight-freeze responses. Our hearts start pumping faster, our muscles tense up for action. Often, in today’s society we do not react with physical movement to the stress, but with a mental and emotional response from a seated position. A physical action would dissipate the built-up tension in our muscles, and change the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters. We would be able to relax. Mental reactions just don’t have the same effect on our bodies. So we regularly sit with the physical feeling of tension long after the cause has passed. Often, when we are exposed to a similar situation, our bodies react in the same way they did before. It’s almost like a muscle memory that is recalled and with it come the associated emotions. We can get stuck in a spiral with ever-increasing tightness. So the tension in our bodies builds up, stressful experience stacked upon stressful experience – a complex interaction between an anxiety-producing incident, our impression of its meaning, our emotions and our embodied experience that keeps us trapped in the hold of anxiety.
There is hope – because of this complex matrix it is also possible to break the connection from different angles. In my last blog I explored our attitudes to times of tension as the foundation for working with our anxieties, as well as what we can learn from our emotions. This time, I would like to explore some physical approaches to reducing embodied tension as part of the process of releasing the hold of the tension cycle:
At least twenty minutes of aerobic exercise every day can help to dissipate the build‑up of stress hormones and release neurotransmitters that help us feel more relaxed. Regular stretching has a similar effect.
Breathing through our nose (instead of mouth) purifies, heats, moistens and pressurises the air we breathe. As a result, we absorb more oxygen. Deep, slow breaths bring oxygen into the deepest alveoli of our lungs and also increase the oxygen absorbed. A sigh has a similar result. Slow and soft breathing has a calming effect too.
Progressive relaxation is a technique we learnt as students, and I still find it most effective today. It requires physically tensing one part of my body and then relaxing it. I progressively move my attention to the next part of my body until I have relaxed all body parts. I start with my face, then neck, shoulders etc until I get to my toes. With practice I am now in the place where I skip the physical tensing of my muscles, and can very quickly relax all of my body. Sometimes I focus only on those places where I know my tension sits.
A few exaggerated shoulder shrugs can also do the trick.
A combination of all of these can be done in the shower accompanied by imagining that we are rinsing off our tension as the water goes down the drain…
Using a weighted blanket has been shown to have a calming effect as well as help insomnia. (See article below)
Repetitive body movements like those used in knitting or crocheting also calm us down, as long as we are aware of our posture and keep our shoulders down as we do them. You also have a creative end product in the end – check out the YouTube link below for some fun!
A routine that includes times of regular rest and restoration (at least one day a week) can do wonders for overall levels of tension – more about that another day.
What works for you?
Weighted blankets can decrease insomnia severity:
How a psychiatrist uses knitting to heal: