What's the Tension in Your Body Trying to Tell You?
Often, psychological and emotional stress is stored in the body as tension
Where your body feels tense provides clues to what might be troubling you
If you are struggling with stress, find a therapist here
When it comes to your car, how do you know when something is wrong? An unfamiliar noise? A strange vibration? Or worse, when the engine blows a gasket? It should be the same with the body, but we often neglect to notice changes in tension and sensation that can impact our wellbeing until it is too late.
The perception of changes inside our bodies (called ‘interoception’) provides an important set of data that supports our Physical Intelligence. If tensions in our muscles become habitual responses, we may become less flexible and find that we are less collaborative and creative, less able to be authentic and adapt to new things.
Too much muscular tension uses up valuable energy to no effect and often creates discomfort and pain. Relieving that tension, not only relieves the discomfort and pain, it improves our mental and emotional flexibility, transforming the feeling of being ‘in the grip’ of stressors to feeling open and adaptable to them. Relieving tension requires changing our internal chemistry, what we call upping the ODDS: boosting Oxytocin, Dopamine, DHEA and Serotonin, and lowering cortisol. We first need to understand where the tension lies.
MOT stands for ‘Map of Tension’. Creating your own MOT is a great way to monitor tension:
- Notice exactly how your body feels right now. Don’t change your position. Scan your body. What areas/muscle groups are overly tense, held too tightly for no apparent reason?
- Look at a printed illustration of the human body or quickly sketch an outline – front and back. Mark on the illustration with a cross or a circle the key areas of tension you noticed. (Most people have at least two or three ‘hotspots’)
- Move your body – stand, walk, bend and stretch. Any additional hotspots? Mark them on the graphic and number all locations marked
- Explore the first hotspot by moving that specific area of your body slowly, giving the movement your full attention. If you have pain in that area of the body, begin with the smallest of movements before you try anything bigger. (If you have been given restrictions or instructions by any medical professionals re: how you should move that part of your body, please adhere to those instructions. Do not carry out any movements that might exacerbate any medical conditions you may have)
- Find a movement – tiny, small, medium or large – that alleviates the tension. Experiment slowly and gently to find what feels most beneficial. If you experience discomfort, sit still and focus your mind on that area with the aim of releasing the tension
- Sometimes focusing on a painful body area can make it temporarily more painful. If this happens, do not try to move that body part. Instead, take 3 breaths, imagining that the breath can reach the area directly, then focus on another, less painful, body area
- Create your own movements or adapt stretches/movements that you know help. Try them with renewed focus and attention. Work carefully and precisely using your body’s intelligence to tell you what it needs
- Make note of the movements you have chosen on the illustration of the body
- Bearing in mind that each hotspot sends data (sensation or pain) to the insular cortex of the brain that enables us to interpret and find solutions, ask yourself these questions:
- What are each of my hotspots telling me? (If they could speak, what would they be saying?)
- What requests would they make?
- What advice would they give?
- What insights into your patterns of thought and feeling does this exploration provide?
- What do you want to do differently?
Different hotspots of tension tend to be related to different challenges. Here are some common tension hotspots, what they tell us and what we can do about them:
Tension in your jaw
Jaw tension is often linked with frustration, being in the grip of something or holding back on communicating something important.
Remedy: Move the jaw gently side to side, forwards and backwards, and stretch your mouth into a wide yawn.
Tension in your stomach
Stomach knots can accompany performance worries, feelings of personal anxiety, insecurity or guilt.
Remedy: Twist at the waist to the left and to the right. Identify the specific location of knots of tension and imagine sending your breath directly to the knotted area.
Tension in the neck or shoulders
Neck or shoulder tension is related to carrying the weight of our head as we strain towards screens or towards people with whom we are speaking. They are also classic signs that there is general stress in our system.
Remedy: Regularly realign your head on your spine using strong seated posture technique, as well as the exercises ‘Shoulder Stretch and Drop’ (inching the shoulders up to the ears in eight steps, tipping the head back and squeezing neck and shoulder muscles, taking a breath in and dropping the shoulders back down) and ‘Freeing the Neck’ (rolling the neck in a figure eight pattern).
Tension in the lower back
Lower back tension can indicate a lack of core support or support from family members, peers and bosses. Ask yourself: Are you taking on too much responsibility? Are you communicating with others, asking them to step up and play their full part?
Remedy: Use strong, grounded posture technique and strengthen the core by balancing on one leg, slowly lifting the knee towards the chest, then gradually lowering and repeating with the other leg. ‘Torso Twist’ (sitting with knees and hips facing forward, place the left arm diagonally down and across the body so that the back of the left hand is against the outside of the right knee, breathe in and out; twist your torso to the right, looking over your right shoulder, placing your right hand behind you for leverage; repeat to the left), ‘Golf Swing’ (pretend to swing a golf club, just as you would on the course) and ‘Freeing the Hips’ (make a figure eight with the hips) exercises also help.
Tension in the arms and legs
Arm and leg tension can result from clenched fingers, braced toes and frequently making fists and often indicates that you are bracing against your environment/feeling the need to fight a battle.
Remedy: Loosen your limbs by gently shaking your legs one at a time and both arms together, imagining you want to loosen the muscles’ grip on the bones, releasing tension. (Picture Usain Bolt getting into the starting blocks.) Also use stretches and ‘Free Breathing’ (breathe deeply into the abdomen, feeling the ribs expand and the chest cavity fill; breathe out freely with a sigh, feel relief on the out breath; repeat as needed).
Tension in the chest
Chest tension may indicate accumulated containment of emotional reactions.
Remedy: Stretch into a diver’s pose – head up, arms out to the side and pointed back, chest out and forwards and breathe into your sternum/chest.
Tension in the hamstring and spine
Tension in this area may be associated with a mindset or approach that is too fixed, or being bored or under-stimulated.
Remedy: Stretch the legs in multiple directions – see what feels good. ‘Shake Out’ (bend forwards at the waist, head hanging down, spine inverted, upper body, especially the neck relaxed; take a deep breath in; on the out breath, vigorously shake torso and shoulders while verbalising an “ah” sound; slowly roll up with head coming up last).
As the remedies above support, movement is the key to upping our ODDS. Movement keeps us ‘fluid.’ After all, we are made up of 60% water, the base for all fluids in the body and the transmission fluid for hormones and neurotransmitters. All feelings, thoughts and actions are the result of impulses, chemical or electrical, passing through these fluids. To be flexible, we need to be well-hydrated and we must also move our bodies. In nature, non-flowing water becomes stagnant; it’s the same in the body. When we move, the fluids move, releasing toxins from cells, transforming static chemical states into more adaptive states and ‘flushing’ our system.
We should be moving for two to fours hours a day (according to a 2015 paper commissioned by Public Health England). Those who sit all day have a 13% greater risk of cancer and 17% greater risk of mortality compared to those who move.
Our bodies are designed for locomotion and movement and doing so enhances our health, our mood and our mindset. By using the above techniques, you will make a great start on upping your ODDS for better flexibility and increased adaptability, influence, creativity and innovation.
Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are the authors of new wellbeing book Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster)