What do you feel when you read the word “tension?”
When we speak or hear about tension in the context of a yoga class or a massage treatment, we might think of tension as something to be eradicated, soothed away, released, dissolved. We’re encouraged to smooth our forehead, relax our jaw, soften our shoulders. The unspoken understanding is that tension is a problem.
The truth is much more complicated. Not only do we tense (engage) our muscles in dynamic patterns to move our body into different positions and to travel through the world, each of us is literally held together by tension. Our myofascial system is suspended around our bones through what is termed tensegrity. Without the tension of the soft tissues of our body, our skeleton would collapse in a heap on the floor.
Okay, you might be thinking, but that’s not what we’re talking about. The BAD kind of tension is what gives us headaches and makes my shoulders and back tight. It’s the furrow of the brow and the wrinkle in my forehead and the way I clench my jaw. I need to get rid of that kind of tension, don’t I?
It’s really natural to feel that this tension is bad. It doesn’t feel good and yes, it often does have negative effects. I can attest that jaw-clenching, tooth-grinding, shoulder gripping, and tension headaches are all really unpleasant.
Let’s zoom out for a moment and take a look at why this tension is present. Much of what we think of as negative tension is the result of an ongoing or habitually unresolved stress cycle in the body. When our bodies are under threat, our nervous system reacts by creating muscular tension (to run from danger or to defend ourselves). We armor ourselves in a protective way: tailbone tucking, abdominal muscles and pelvic floor gripped. As a result, breath becomes shallow and we breathe with our accessory breathing muscles (neck and shoulders). It’s an incredible physiological process designed to keep us safe. You can read more about why your stress response is your superpower here.
When defense systems become overwhelmed or we are unable to complete the stress cycle, we can get “stuck” in these patterns of tension. However, attempting to soothe away the tension will only have limited results. Your nervous system is often holding that tension there because it is trying to keep you safe.
If you’ve ever had the experience of enjoying a really relaxing massage or a relaxing restorative yoga session, only to be swept up in a rebound of anxiety, stress, or panic afterward, then you’ll understand what’s meant by “relaxation-induced anxiety.” This can happen when we artificially relax ourselves to override the stress response– our natural survival resource in the body.
Attempts to soothe away tension with deep breathing, touch or other stimulation to the vagus nerve can trigger relaxation that temporarily interrupts the stress response. When the body recognizes that we are still “in danger”– that is, the stress has still not been resolved– it tightens us right back up to deal with the perceived threat.
Rather than treating our tension as some sort of wrinkle to be ironed out, we can recognize it as a useful and protective adaptation, and find ways to discharge the stress energy (through movement, for example) so that our nervous system feels safer. At the same time, we might work on ways to create more of a sense of felt safety in our own body by integrating mindful strength work. Core strength, posterior chain engagement and hand/grip strength are just a few of the ways that we can increase our sense of internal capacity. When the body feels more capable of dealing with threat, the nervous system has less of a need to armor against it. We can use our internal systems of tension to support us.