What if you are holding tension in your body that affects the way you think, feel, and act without you even knowing it? This unrecognized pressure 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 will learn an easy technique to release subconscious tension, so you feel fuller, freer, more relaxed, and energized in only minutes.
In the book,”Meditation: An In-Depth Guide” (Tarcher/Perigree, 2011), writers Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson tell a funny story that illustrates how most of us are 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 courses named Brian. Brian came to meditation course wanting to ease back and shoulder pain that had plagued him for ages. In their very first class, Ian slowly guided the class into a meditative state and then opened his eyes to check on how people were doing. (p.81, MAIG)
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 individuals both become aware of anxiety 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 Don’t Know You’re Holding
Tension comes from stress. Here’s how this occurs:
You are facing a challenging situation. You don’t know when you have the resources to handle this situation well.
Immediately, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for monitoring threatening situations, fires up. It sends alert signs throughout your body to mobilize you to action. Your hormone system switches to adrenaline mode and electric signals take through your connective tissue preparing you to be on guard.
If you’re 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 results. The sensations are strong and the contrast between alarm and retrieval is great-so you can easily sense it.
But, there are two situations in which the tension doesn’t subside-and you don’t notice it. In both cases, tension is stored in your body.
The Tension of Trauma
The first instance is when a situation is dramatic and you’re not able to completely process it-it overwhelms you. Being in a car collision, being subject to physical or emotional abuse, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing intense trauma like war, will probably surpass your coping resources. In these circumstances, your stress response is initiated and your body goes into shock. Your body”freezes” in this condition. You lock into stress mode and don’t recover.
As time passes, the tension locked in your body moves to the background of your consciousness and you no longer notice it. It becomes “normal.” But it continues to influence how you think, feel, and act.
For example, you can become anxious in related conditions. You may”flashback” to the first stressful event or have persistent negative thoughts and feelings that seem to come out of nowhere. You might 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 associated feelings will continue to cycle on mind and body until you are able to consciously process and fix the injury and release the related tension.
The second cause of subconscious saved tension is much more subtle. It’s so subtle you’ll probably be totally 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 lively 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 this way, I would observe that most people would at first have their hips”locked,” so that I was unable to move them. I would need to say something like,”O.K. today, let your hips go.” With this simple instruction, most people could let go and find some degree of lateral motion.
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 couple of seconds into the movement, many customers would lock up again. Their hips would go stiff.
Intuitively, I started to ask,”What did you get started thinking about just now?”
Invariably customers would say,”What do you mean?”
I would inform them that their hips just locked up. When I questioned them further, they would say things like,”Oh, I just started to consider this or that that I must do later,” or”I started to be worried about such and such.”
It was fascinating to see just how initiating a slightly stressful thought would immediately produce tension in the body.
How many stressful thoughts, worries, or anxious moments do you have daily? How many of these thoughts or worries are persistent? By way of example, with your finances, work, or family situations? Can you imagine how much subtle strain has stored on your body-without you even knowing it-as a consequence of stressful thoughts, worries, and concerns?
I became persistently aware of the insight as I worked with customers who had chronic neck pain and low back pain in particular. Yes, these relate to physical problems like muscle stiffness, weakness, and imbalance-AND they were invariably accompanied by stressful thoughts and feelings.
For 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 events. Yet, most individuals do not make this connection. Most are searching only for bodily causes and bodily cures and don’t see the mental-emotional events that set the pain and stiffness in motion.
Recognizing and Releasing Subconscious Tension
Fortunately, your body and mind are equipped with tools to recognize and release tension and the corresponding pains, ideas, feelings, and memories. These tensions may exist in layers which 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 easy way to recognize and release tension in only a few minutes.
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 retrieval which delivers a clear consciousness of the difference between tension and relaxation.
When I learned meditation in the Kriya Yoga tradition, the first instruction capitalized with this feeling of contrast to train a feeling of deep relaxation. The idea is simple: move your focus through your whole body, from feet and feet, to thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest and back, shoulders, and face, first slowly tensing each area into a strong muscular contraction, then slowly releasing the regeneration until you feel the muscles fully soften.
Go ahead and give this a try only with one body part and see how it feels. It’s a fairly cool sensation.
Put one hand, palm up, in 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 maximum contraction. Hold this contraction for ten seconds… Then, VERY SLOWLY release the tension until your hand is totally limp.
If you think 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. Notice how your hand feels. You may feel a lightness in your hand, a heat of flow, or just a soft, spacious feeling.
Compare the sensation to the flip side and notice any difference.
If you want to experience a deeper, whole-body state of comfort, you can perform a Contract/Relax sequence, first with both feet, then both legs, both shoulders, your abdomen, chest, back, shoulders, and face. This technique, sometimes done from head to toe, is usually called”Progressive Muscle Relaxation.” Once you’re finished, notice how your entire body feels. Record this feeling in each cell, so it creates a strong impression that you are able to return to more readily and deepen the next time you exercise.
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 require.