Why does ‘stress’ make us tense?” 

by Roxanne Williams

A client brought this question to me, as many clients before have pondered something similar. This was the first time, however, it was brought to me in such a clear manner that I could actually come up with a [somewhat] direct answer! Allow me to elaborate…

Most of my clients come in pointing to an area of their body, usually their upper back, saying “I carry all of my stress here.” This statement alone points to 2 important things: 1-stress always manifests in your body. 2-We tend to hold onto stressful events, ideas, and feelings. I always suggest two practices to address this: 1-LET GO! Let go of past hurts and stressors, and don’t get stuck in current ones. Let it go. If you let it go, then you’ve got nothing to carry. Think about it…it makes sense. Not to say that stressful situations won’t ever affect you, but they don’t have to stay with you (Like aches, pains and illnesses). The second practice: when something stressful occurs, notice it in your body. Examples of a “stressful situation” are: someone annoys you to the point of aggravation; when you’re running late and stuck in traffic; when you’re about to give an important presentation at work; when you’re anticipating being with family over the holidays; when the cashier at the grocery store throws your canned goods on top of your tomatoes in the bag, etc. The sooner you draw attention to the stress manifesting in your body, the sooner you can release it. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes to accomplish.

So…why do we do this? Why do our bodies react to situations like this? Remember the “fight or flight” response? When your mind perceives a threat, your body reacts. That is your body’s job, and it does a good job as far as that goes. The problem is that our minds confuse things and our body doesn’t know how to differentiate between a genuine threat and a perceived one. And as it turns out, the threat does not have to be a physical one. It’s all in the story we tell ourselves about the situation that is occurring. One of my favorite quotes is from the Will Smith movie After Earth on the subject of fear, “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present, and may not ever, exist…Danger is VERY real. But fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story…” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LFlg3Pmt50).

What plays out in your mind is what your body THINKS it sees. So if you were chased by a dog ten years ago, and if you replay that moment in your mind, you may notice similar body sensations as when it was actually happening (ie. heart rate increase, hyperventilation, fists or jaws clenching, etc.).  And if you see another dog, you may feel the same anxiety…even if there is no indication that the dog you are presently with is likely to become aggressive. Or, if you are watching a movie and you find that you are stressing about what’s happening on the screen, it’s because your mind thinks you are there! Your mind doesn’t recognize that you are not actually in the situation you are watching. If your mind perceives a threat, it’s your body’s job to react. The way we are designed is perfect. The only kink that needs worked out is our understanding of the way we are designed so that we can operate our machine (our body) optimally.

So…without diving too deeply into this subject, let’s bring it back to the title topic. Now that we know why stress makes us tense, what can we do about that? We can begin by making ourselves aware. Bringing awareness to something can reduce its power over us (“stress’” power comes from its ability to sneak up on us and cause us to feel helpless under it). Awareness is the name of the game in all mind-body modalities. The goal in mind-body practice is to bring the awareness of the mind from what’s going on in the mind to what is going on IN THE BODY. Right here, right now—in the present. The purpose of “practice” is to bring this awareness into our waking lives from the mat, class, or massage table.

So, when you are preparing that presentation for the senior partners at work, and you are visualizing yourself in front of all those eyes, practice breathing. Notice the tension in your shoulders and release it. The more you practice noticing the tension, the more you will notice it. The more you practice releasing the tension, the easier it will be to release. The more you practice all of this, no matter where you are, the easier it will be to accomplish while giving the actual presentation, or in the heat of any other situation life brings you.

Don’t get frustrated with yourself if you don’t get the hang of it right away! Because you won’t… especially if you are over 30 and just being introduced to this knowledge. As with everything worth anything, it takes time to really get it—that’s what “practice” is for. As a mind-body specialist who has been practicing this knowledge for years, I still remind myself several times a day (sometimes several times a minute!) to release the tension in my shoulders, etc. And trust me, the reward is feeling better in so many ways. In the meantime keep building the awareness by getting massage, take classes as often as possible, and take your awareness into the world with you.

Until we meet again…Namaste.


p.s….Check out one of the studies about how mindfulness practices and meditation affect the body. Finally! Studies being done to confirm and explain how all this mind-body stuff works! http://www.tunedbody.com/scientists-finally-show-thoughts-can-cause-specific-molecular-changes-genes/