One of the key problems that underlies most physical issues is stress and excessive tension. Injuries can happen when we live our lives to the full, however sometimes we recover easily and sometimes pain and injury become chronic. And sometimes we get physical problems seemingly out of nowhere and struggle to get rid of them.
When injuries seem to just not want to heal, or pain and discomfort comes out of nowhere, stress often is an underlying factor. Stress is something we may experience as an unpleasant state that makes us tired, irritable and anxious. Sometimes we get simply used to feeling like that and hardly notice just how stressful our lives are. Or we deny to ourselves just how stressed we are because we believe we should be more resilient.
However stress does not only affect our mind and comfort levels, it also affects our body. When we are stressed we do not give ourselves the rest our body and mind usually requires. Instead we are hyper vigilant, on high alert and our muscles are in a constant state of readiness. Our nervous system knows nothing about our modern lifestyles and the cause of our stress. It does not know that the stress is caused by pressure at work or problems with the children. It interprets our state of being as a signal that we are in a dangerous situation. It makes sure that our body is ready for fight, flight or freeze. This is called the sympathetic nervous system responds. Our breathing becomes more shallow, muscles continue to be permanently ready to contract quickly and powerfully to defend us or to run away from danger. Being in this state also changes our hormone levels. We produce more adrenaline and other hormones that support this expenditure of energy for constant readiness. Hormones that maintain cell repair and help us sleep will now be produced less in order to give adrenaline priority. This means that maintenance and repair processes in the body will go on standby. Digestion for example is not something that would happen while we are running away from danger or fighting for our lives. It would take energy away from the vital need of defence or flight. Therefore, when we are stressed, our digestive system tends to suffer. Other processes in the body, such as repair of tissue damage will also take a step back to allow high alert and defence to take priority.
Stress by nature is supposed to be a short term responds that allows us to deal with a sudden, dangerous situation. However in our day and age stress has become something we live with for longer periods of time. Our body can not sustain this state of hyper vigilance and constant readiness without suffering some kind of damage.
We may start having symptoms such as sleeping and digestive problems or migraines and tension headaches. As our body starts struggling more and more with this prolonged state of stress, the constant readiness of our muscles and the defensive, protective tensing of our connective tissue start to become the normal state. This is when excessive tension starts to impair our physical abilities and makes us prone to injury, which then our body is not so able to repair, as repair is not a priority in our stressed body.
It is important to say that not all tension is bad. Tension is a necessity for healthy movement. Our connective tissue and muscles need to have a degree of balanced tension in order to create movement. However when we are stressed for long periods of time we have too much of it, to a degree where it creates restriction, pain and limitation. As we got to this point gradually over time we may not even be aware of the amount of tension we are holding in our body. In fact all we might notice is that we feel physically weak and stiff. We tend to interpret this as feeling generally unfit, or we put it down to the ageing process.
Excessive tension restricts our muscles from being able to expand and contract. It literally disables them from doing their job, giving us the feeling of weakness. We often then make things worse by going to the gym, using brute force in an attempt to get stronger, hence increasing excessive tension and stress in our body. What we then have is a vicious circle.
So what can we do to reduce stress and tension in our body?
1. Reduce Stress In Your Life
While this may be an obvious solution, it is probably the hardest one too. Chronic stress is on the rise for a reason and in order to not go down that route we seriously have to get an overview of our life and what we are demanding of our selves. Identify the areas in your life that are important for your well-being and that currently come too short. Think about how you can reorganise your routine to make time for those things that come too short. Be realistic. Something might have to give, however we tend to compromise on our well-being first and put everything else above it. It is important to realise that in the longer term we can not outrun ourselves and in order to be there for others, or to have that successful career we need to look after our well being. Try not to compare your resilience to stress with that of others around you. Your individual state of being matters, not how much stress anyone else around you can take, or thinks you should be able to take. We are all different and our lives are uniquely different too. It is impossible to compare our stress with that of others. Be kind to yourself and value time just for yourself. It is not selfish and it is not a waste of time. It is important in order for you to keep going and be there for the ones you love.
2. Increase Your Awareness
The more body awareness we can develop, the more power we have over it. Once in a while during your day just check in with your body and the subtle state it is in. How do your feet meet the floor? How are you standing or sitting? Don't over-police your posture and try not to judge. Just ask yourself “How is my body? Can I let go a little bit? If not, -what do I need, in order to let go a little bit?”
3. Use Your Breath
Breathing is a hugely powerful tool to change internal processes in our body. To a degree we can influence the sympathetic nervous system response through the way we breath. We may not have direct control of our digestive system, however we do have direct control over how we breath. We can use our breath to coax our body into shifting into the opposite state, the para-sympathetic state of repair, restoration and relaxation. This is why breathing is often used in relaxation techniques. Relaxation is a great way to reduce tension, however we need to find the right way for us to practice relaxation. Not one fits all and ultimately the important thing is to bring relaxation into our life, rather than keeping it something we do when we have the time. You can change your breathing, no matter what else you are busy with. The effect on the body is incredible. Try breathing into your stomach slowly and deeply, filling it up like a balloon. Pause a moment before you breath out. Aim to make the exhale last longer than the inhale. Repeat for a few minutes several times a day. On a personal note, this technique helped me get rid of my chronic digestion problems that no pills could help with.
4. Get A Massage
At the beginning it can be hard to shift physical tension all by yourself. Getting a light massage can be a great aid at this time. If you are suffering from tension related pain it can be very tempting to ask for the deepest deep tissue massage you can get, however these can be counterproductive in this case. Your body has tensed up for a reason and you need to work with it in order for it to release. You can not force it to do so. While you may experience quick, powerful relief from your tension symptoms afterwards, your body will tense up on you soon again and possibly worse than before. If you are stressed, deep and painful massage will be interpreted by the body as a form of attack. Therefore it will make sure it heightens its defences even more. When you look for a suitable massage I recommend a light form of myofascial release or even a hot stone massage. If you are desperate for that deep tissue massage, choose a therapist who will go deep very carefully and slowly. If massage is not your thing, try a hot bath or go for a swim. This can have similar effects.
5. Improve Your Relationship With Your Body
It goes without saying, that if you feel uncomfortable in your body for some reason you also grow more tense. We all are uncomfortable sometimes. It is an issue when discomfort and tension becomes our permanent state. As mentioned above, key for long term success is to work with your body on your goal to reduce tension. If you are very uncomfortable in your body for any reason, or you reject it on some level, this will be tricky. You may need help to find a way into rebuilding a positive relationship with your body, depending on the source of your discomfort.
6. Reconnect With Nature
We live in an increasingly digital and technical world, however we are still organic. Make time to go out for walks or even runs in nature. Moving, particularly surrounded by nature can have a calming influence and disburses some of the tension we hold on to. Research has shown that those who exercise outdoors where more efficient at decreasing high blood pressure than those exercising in gyms. Also, if you have a cat or a dog, spend time with them. Animals are the best teachers when it comes to healthy movement and a balanced, stress free lifestyle.
7. Learn To Move And Exercise Without Excessive Tension
Jane Fonda's famous words “No Pain, No Gain” have added to a workout mentality in our Western world, that can be harmful and inefficient. Somehow we feel that unless we completely exhausted ourselves and ache the next day we just wasted our time. To a degree physical exertion can help reduce tension indeed, however poor exercise technique that deliberately seeks excessive tension means that most of the time we make a physical task harder than it should be. Instead of toughening up and getting stronger we simply learn to fight against ourselves harder and do things with excessive tension where there does not need to be any, risking wear and tear and injury. Where else in your life is forcing yourself to do things the hard way over and over a good idea? Can you imagine performing a challenging physical movement like a squat or push up with ease, being comfortable and relaxed? This is what exercise can be like when you are patient and learn how to use all of your body and your surroundings efficiently and healthily to move effortlessly and skillfully without force and excessive tension.
If you would like some help with any of the above you can contact Kristin to discuss your case and how she might be able to help you.
Alternatively you might like to attend Kristin's Release & Restore Class, which is designed to calm your nervous system, gently mobilise your body and reduce aches and pains.
The next class available in Leigh on Sea will be on Thursday 22nd of February 6:30pm - 8pm.
The next class available in Edinburgh will be on Friday the 2rd of March 7pm - 8:30pm.