Releasing Tension

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:

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Live in tension. Live intentionally.

A few days ago I was involved in a conversation where each person shared a phrase that has come up often in our lives, that carries a lot of our life philosophy in it. You guessed it, mine was “Live in tension. Live intentionally.”

I have come to realise that in some way or another there is always a level of tension in my life. The tension I live in has many different sources, some are easier to manage than others. (I want to just make a proviso here that I am not writing about living with chronic anxiety, PTSD and panic attacks. Please get professional help if that describes you.)

Sometimes this experience of tension can be related to choices I have to make. I have so many ideas but it is impossible to pursue them all. There are a number of people in my life with expectations of me that may conflict with my own priorities. There is only so much I can do with my time and resources.

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Integrating all aspects of YOU

While I was doing my coaching course, we were advised to focus on finding and developing our own niche as coaches. My thought process kept bringing me back to the term “integration” – a concept that has often featured in my life, in a number of ways.

I was first introduced to “integration” when, as an Occupational Therapy student in the nineties, we learnt about how better results are achieved when the two sides of our bodies and brains work together. Much more so, than when we rely on only one side. Integration can be defined as the process of combining two or more things in an effective way so that they form a unified whole that is more than merely the sum of its parts. Disintegration then is the loss of effectiveness, cohesion, strength – a process of fragmenting or falling apart. We experience disintegration when we feel overwhelmed by external and internal stressors and challenges, when our parts are not working together smoothly.

When we experience stressful circumstances, we often struggle with strong emotions like anger, pain, anxiety and fear. It feels like they are taking over our lives, and often we try to avoid dealing with them for as long as possible. However, suppressing them often results in an uncontrolled pressure-cooker effect: the pot boils over or even explodes, often when it is most inconvenient.

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Preparing for the next work chapter…

Some of us are going to be returning to out-of-home work on level 3. After 2 months at home living with uncertainty, some of us may be surprised by our mixed feelings about this next step, with rising anxiety about going back to a daily workplace routine. Given the current circumstances, this is a fairly normal response. What can we do to make this transition as low-stress as possible?

What is the first thing that comes to mind – our biggest concern? If we can address that concern in a practical way, we will have come a long way in alleviating our anxiety. If your friend was telling you about this issue, what advice would you give him/her? I don’t know what your biggest worry is, but hopefully one of the possibilities below will spark some ideas that work for you.

Let’s think this through in a very practical way – what do we know about the circumstances we are going back to…and what changes to daily life can we make now that bring us closer to the daily work experience?

We know what work clothes we will be wearing. If practical, we could start wearing them during the day even now. Those of us who use make-up might want to start doing that again.

If we know what time we need to leave the house to get to work on time, we can set our alarms and practice our wake-up and go routine. This also means getting to bed on time. This may involve our children if they are in grades 12 or 7 (if they are willing to play along!) If we have children of other age groups, what will be happening to them  while we are at work? This may land up being a difficult question to navigate – we need to know they are safe.

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