What if you’re holding tension in your body right now that affects how you think, feel, and behave without you even being aware of it? This unrecognized tension keeps you in a state of subtle stress that drains your energy, makes you anxious, and puts up chronic neck pain, back pain, and illness. As time passes, you can become so numb to this anxiety that you don’t know what deep relaxation feels like. In this post, you’ll learn an easy technique to release subconscious tension, so you feel fuller, freer, more relaxed, and energized in just minutes.
In the book,”Meditation: An In-Depth Guide” (Tarcher/Perigree, 2011), writers Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson tell a humorous story that illustrates how a lot of us are so accustomed to holding tension in our bodies that we don’t even know we are stressed.
Gawler and Bedson describe a participant in one of Ian’s meditation classes named Brian. Brian came to meditation course wanting to relieve back and shoulder pain that had plagued him for years. In their first course, Ian slowly guided the class into a meditative state and then opened his eyes to check on how people were doing.
After the meditation was over, Ian went round the room and asked about people’s experience. When he got to Brian, Brian said through clenched teeth,”Oh, fine, very relaxed” and he appeared 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 acquainted 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 appear to have more energy.”
The Tension You Do Not Know You Are Holding
Here’s how this happens:
You’re facing a challenging situation. You don’t know if you’ve got the resources to handle this situation well.
Instantly, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for monitoring threatening situations, fires up. It sends alert signals throughout your body to mobilize one to action. Your hormone system switches to adrenaline mode and electric signals take through your connective tissues preparing you to be on guard.
If you are facing a major, or life-endangering hazard, this reaction is dramatic. You feel your heart race, your breathing quicken, and your muscles tense. If and when you manage the threat, these physiological responses subside and you return to a resting state of recovery.
Since the situation and the resolution are somewhat striking, you will likely notice and feel the effects. The sensations are powerful and the comparison between alarm and recovery is great-so you can readily sense it.
But, there are two situations where the tension doesn’t subside-and you don’t notice it. In both cases, tension is stored within your body.
The Tension of Trauma
The first instance is when a situation is dramatic and you’re not able to fully process it-it overwhelms you. Being in a car collision, being subject to physical or emotional abuse, being the victim of a crime, or undergoing intense trauma like 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 don’t recover.
As time passes, the tension locked in your body moves into the background of your awareness and you no longer notice it. However, it continues to influence how you think, feel, and act.
By way of example, you can become anxious in related situations. You may”flashback” to the original stressful event or have persistent negative thoughts and feelings that appear to come out of nowhere. You may have persistent mental chatter regarding the traumatic event such as”I am unsafe,””I better stay on-guard,” and”the world is a dangerous location.”
These thoughts and related feelings will continue to cycle in mind and body until you have the ability to consciously process and resolve the injury and release the related tension.
The second cause of subconscious stored tension is more subtle. It’s so subtle you’ll probably be completely unaware of it, until it builds into something like digestive problems, chronic back or neck pain, migraines, or cancer.
I started to notice this subtle strain 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 in the hips. This is a superb way to release hip and lower back tension.
As I stretched client after client this manner, I would observe that most people would at first have their hips”locked,” so that I was unable to move them. I would have to say something like,”O.K. now, let your hips go.” With this simple instruction, most people could let go and find some degree of lateral movement.
I generally maintained this rhythmic stretching going for at least 60 seconds, so the back and buttocks let go and release more and more. Yet, I would notice that a few seconds into the motion, many customers would lock up again. Their hips would go stiff.
Intuitively, I started to ask,”What did you start thinking about just now?”
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 must do later,” or”I started to worry about such and such.”
It was intriguing to see just how initiating a slightly stressful thought would instantly produce tension in the body.
How many stressful thoughts, anxieties, or anxious minutes do you have daily? How many of these thoughts or worries are persistent? For instance, with your own finances, work, or family circumstances? Can you imagine how much subtle tension gets stored on your body-without you even knowing it-as a consequence of stressful thoughts, anxieties, and concerns?
Stressful thoughts and feelings immediately translate into physical tension. I became persistently conscious of this insight as I worked with customers who had chronic neck pain and low back pain specifically. Yes, these relate to physical issues such as muscle stiffness, weakness, and imbalance-AND they were invariably accompanied by stressful thoughts and feelings.
By way of instance, 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 occasions. Yet, most people do not make this connection. Most are looking only for bodily causes and physical cures and fail to see the mental-emotional events that put the tightness and pain in movement.
Recognizing and Releasing Subconscious Tension
Fortunately, your mind and body are equipped with tools to recognize and release tension and the accompanying pains, ideas, feelings, and memories. These tensions may exist in layers that take time and continuous 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 couple minutes.
The Contract/Relax Technique
Above, we talked about how profoundly stressful experiences are palpable when first experienced and noticeable when they subside-if we manage them well. There is a sharp contrast between alarm and recovery that provides a clear consciousness of the difference between tension and relaxation.
When I learned meditation in the Kriya Yoga tradition, the initial instruction capitalized on this feeling of comparison to train a sense of deep relaxation. The concept is simple: move your focus through your entire body, from feet and feet, to legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest and back, shoulders, and face, first gradually tensing each area into a solid muscular contraction, then slowly releasing the contraction until you feel the muscles fully dampen.
Go ahead and give this a try only with one body part and see how it feels. I suggest trying it with one hand. It’s a fairly cool sensation.
Put one hand, palm up, on your leg. Focus on the sensation in your hand as you slowly curl it into a fist and then gently tighten it to about 70% of maximal contraction. Hold this contraction for ten minutes… Then, VERY SLOWLY release the tension until your hand is completely limp.
When you think that your is completely relaxed, see if you can let go more-until your hand and fingers are softly resting on your leg, like a cloud floating in the sky. You might feel a lightness in your hand, a warmth of flow, or just a soft, spacious feeling.
Compare the feeling to the flip side and detect any difference.
If you wish to experience a deeper, whole-body state of comfort, 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 usually called”Progressive Muscle Relaxation.” As soon as you’re finished, notice how your entire body feels. Record this feeling in every cell, so it forms a strong impression that you are able to go back to more readily and deepen the next time you exercise.
If you exercise consciously relaxing using this technique, meditation, or some other method, you’ll start to have a reliable baseline of relaxed awareness you can live from and return to whenever you need.