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What if you’re holding tension in your body right now that affects how you think, feel, and act without you even knowing it? This unrecognized tension keeps you in a state of subtle stress that drains your energy, makes you perpetually anxious, and sets up chronic neck pain, back pain, and illness. Over time, you can become so numb to this stress that you don’t know what deep relaxation feels like. In this post, you’ll learn a simple technique to release subconscious tension, so you feel lighter, freer, more relaxed, and energized in just minutes.
In the book, “Meditation: An In-Depth Guide” (Tarcher/Perigree, 2011), authors Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson tell a funny story that illustrates how most of us are so accustomed to holding tension in our bodies that we don’t even know we are tense.
Gawler and Bedson describe a participant in one of Ian’s meditation classes named Brian. Brian came to meditation class wanting to relieve back and shoulder pain that had plagued him for years. In their first class, Ian slowly guided the class into a meditative state and then opened his eyes to check on how people were doing. He noticed Brian “sitting there, deep furrows across his brow, shoulders hunched, and hands tightly squeezed in two fists.” (p.81, MAIG)
When the meditation was over, Ian went around the room and asked about people’s experience. When he got to Brian, Brian said through clenched teeth, “Oh, fine, really relaxed” and he seemed to mean it.
Ian had seen this many times. As a result, he used simple exercises to help people both become aware of tension and become familiar with what relaxation feels like. After doing these exercises for a few weeks, Brian reported that “I have a lightness in my body. The backaches and shoulder pain have gone and I seem to have more energy.” (81, MAIG)
The Tension You Don’t Know You’re Holding
Tension comes from stress. Here’s how this happens:
You are faced with a challenging situation. You don’t know if you have the resources to handle this situation well. This perception initiates your body’s stress response.
Immediately, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for monitoring threatening situations, fires up. It sends alert signals throughout your body to mobilize you to action. Your hormone system switches to adrenaline mode and electrical signals shoot through your connective tissue preparing you to be on guard.
If you are facing a major, or life-endangering threat, this reaction is dramatic. You feel your heart race, your breathing quicken, and your muscles tense. If and when you handle the threat, these physiological responses subside and you return to a resting state of recovery.
Since the situation and the resolution are somewhat dramatic, you will likely notice and feel the effects. The sensations are strong and the contrast between alarm and recovery is great-so you can easily sense it.
However, there are two situations in which the tension does not subside-and you don’t notice it. In both cases, tension is subconsciously stored in your body.
The Tension of Trauma
The first case is when a situation is dramatic and you are not able to fully process it-it overwhelms you. Being in a car accident, being subject to physical or emotional abuse, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing intense trauma such as war, will likely exceed your coping resources. In these situations, your stress response is initiated and your body goes into shock. Your body “freezes” in this state. You lock into stress mode and do not recover.
As time passes, the tension locked in your body moves to the background of your awareness and you no longer notice it. It becomes “normal.” However, it continues to affect how you think, feel, and act.
For example, you may become anxious in related situations. You may “flashback” to the original stressful event or have persistent negative thoughts and feelings that seem to come out of nowhere. You may have persistent mental chatter related to the traumatic event such as “I’m unsafe,” “I better stay on-guard,” and “the world is a dangerous place.”
These thoughts and related feelings will continue to cycle in your mind and body until you are able to consciously process and resolve the trauma and release the associated tension.
The second cause of subconscious stored tension is more subtle. It’s so subtle you will probably be completely unaware of it, until it builds into something like digestive issues, chronic back or neck pain, migraines, or cancer.
I began to notice this subtle tension when I was stretching my clients. In one dynamic stretch, my client lies on their back. I stand and hold them by their ankles. I rhythmically pull one leg and then the other, creating a side to side rocking motion at the hips. This is a great way to release hip and lower back tension.
As I stretched client after client in this way, I would notice that most people would at first have their hips “locked,” so that I was not able to move them. I would have to say something like, “O.K. now, let your hips go.” With this simple instruction, most people were able to let go and get some degree of lateral movement.
I generally kept this rhythmic stretching going for at least 60 seconds, so the hips and back let go and release more and more. Yet, I would notice that a few seconds into the motion, many clients would lock up again. Their hips would go rigid.
Intuitively, I began to ask, “What did you start thinking about just now?”
Invariably clients would say, “What do you mean?”
I would tell them that their hips just locked up. When I questioned them further, they would say things like, “Oh, I just started to think about this or that that I have to do later,” or “I started to worry about such and such.”
It was fascinating to see how initiating a slightly stressful thought would immediately produce tension in the body.
How many stressful thoughts, worries, or anxious moments do you have in a day? How many of these thoughts or worries are persistent? For example, with your finances, work, or family situations? Can you imagine how much subtle tension gets stored in your body-without you even knowing it-as a result of stressful thoughts, worries, and concerns?
Stressful thoughts and feelings immediately translate into physical tension. I became persistently aware of this insight as I worked with clients who had chronic neck pain and low back pain in particular. Yes, these relate to physical issues such as muscle tightness, weakness, and imbalance-AND they were invariably accompanied by stressful thoughts and feelings.
For example, I learned that when someone has an acute attack of neck pain or back pain it is invariably traceable to a stressful event or series of events. Yet, most people do not make this connection. Most are looking only for physical causes and physical cures and fail to see the mental-emotional events that set the tightness and pain in motion.
Recognizing and Releasing Subconscious Tension
Fortunately, your body and mind are equipped with resources to recognize and release tension and the accompanying pains, thoughts, feelings, and memories. These tensions may exist in layers that take time and persistent attention to release, but it does happen if you work with it. A practice such as meditation is a gentle way to release these tensions as they arise in awareness-whether they come from traumas in the past or are momentary tensions of the present day.
Here’s another simple way to recognize and release tension in just a few minutes.
The Contract/Relax Technique
Above, we talked about how intensely stressful experiences are palpable when first experienced and noticeable when they subside-if we handle them well. There is a sharp contrast between alarm and recovery that provides a clear awareness of the difference between tension and relaxation.
When I learned meditation in the Kriya Yoga tradition, the initial instruction capitalized on this feeling of contrast to train a feeling of deep relaxation. The idea is simple: move your attention through your whole body, from toes and feet, to legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest and back, shoulders, and face, first gradually tensing each area into a strong muscular contraction, then slowly releasing the contraction until you feel the muscles completely soften.
Go ahead and give this a try just with one body part and see how it feels. I suggest trying it with one hand. It’s a pretty cool sensation.
Place one hand, palm up, on your leg. Focus on the sensation in your hand as you slowly curl it into a fist and then gradually tighten it to about 70% of maximal contraction. Hold this contraction for ten seconds… Then, VERY SLOWLY release the tension until your hand is completely limp.
When you think your is completely relaxed, see if you can let go even more-until your hand and fingers are softly resting on your leg, like a cloud floating in the sky. Notice how your hand feels. You may feel a lightness in your hand, a warmth of circulation, or just a soft, spacious feeling.
Compare the sensation to the other hand and notice any difference.
If you want to experience a deeper, whole-body state of relaxation, you can perform a Contract/Relax sequence, first with both feet, then both legs, both hips, your abdomen, chest, back, shoulders, and face. This technique, sometimes done from head to toe, is generally known as “Progressive Muscle Relaxation.” Once you are finished, notice how your whole body feels. Record this feeling in every cell, so it forms a strong impression that you can return to more easily and deepen the next time you practice.
If you practice consciously relaxing using this technique, meditation, or some other method, you’ll begin to have a reliable baseline of relaxed awareness you can live from and return to whenever you need.
Enjoy your practice!