What if you’re holding tension in your body that affects the way you think, feel, and behave 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 puts up chronic neck pain, back pain, and sickness. As time passes, you can become so numb to this stress 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 lighter, 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 funny story that illustrates how most of us are so accustomed to holding tension in our bodies which 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 relieve back and shoulder pain that had plagued him for ages. 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 forehead, 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, very relaxed” and he seemed to mean it.
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 couple 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 Are Holding
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. This perception initiates your body’s stress response.
Instantly, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for monitoring threatening conditions, fires up. It sends alert signs throughout your body to mobilize you to action. Your endocrine system switches to adrenaline mode and electric signals take through your connective tissues preparing you to be on guard.
If you’re facing a major, or life-endangering threat, this reaction is dramatic. 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 dramatic, you will probably notice and feel the results. The sensations are powerful and the comparison between alarm and retrieval is great-so you can easily sense it.
However, there are two situations in which the tension doesn’t subside-and you don’t notice it. In both cases, tension is subconsciously stored within your body.
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 collision, being subject to physical or psychological abuse, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing intense trauma such as war, will likely surpass 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 into the background of your awareness and you no longer detect it. It becomes “normal.” But it continues to influence how you think, feel, and act.
For example, you can become anxious in related situations. 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’m unsafe,””I stay on-guard,” and”the world is a dangerous place.”
These thoughts and associated feelings will continue to cycle on mind and body until you are able to consciously process and resolve the injury and release the associated tension.
The second source of subconscious stored tension is more subtle. It’s so subtle you will most likely be completely unaware of it, until it builds into something such as digestive issues, chronic neck or back pain, migraines, or cancer.
I began to notice this subtle strain when I was stretching my clients. In one dynamic stretch, my client lies on their back. I rhythmically pull one leg and then the other, developing a side to side rocking motion at the hips. This is a superb way to release hip and lower back tension.
As I stretched client after client this way, I would notice 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. now, let your hips go.” With this simple instruction, most people could let go and find 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 movement, many customers would lock up again. Their hips would go stiff.
Intuitively, I began to ask,”What did you start thinking about just now?”
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 think about it or that that I must do later,” or”I started to worry about such and such.”
It was fascinating to see how initiating a slightly stressful idea would immediately produce tension in the body.
How many stressful thoughts, anxieties, or anxious moments do you have daily? How many of these ideas or worries are persistent? For example, with your own finances, work, or family situations? Can you imagine how much subtle strain has stored in your body-without you even knowing it-as a result 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 tightness, weakness, and imbalance-AND they were invariably accompanied by stressful thoughts and feelings.
By way of 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 bodily causes and physical cures and fail to find the mental-emotional events that put the pain and stiffness in movement.
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 continuous attention to release, but it does happen if you work with this. A practice like meditation is a gentle way to release these tensions as they arise in awareness-whether they come from traumas from the past or are short term tensions of the present moment.
Here’s another simple way to recognize and release tension in just a couple minutes.
Above, we talked about how profoundly 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.
As soon as I discovered meditation in the Kriya Yoga tradition, the initial instruction capitalized with this feeling of comparison to train a sense of deep relaxation. The idea is simple: move your focus through your entire body, from toes and feet, to thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest and back, shoulders, and face, first gradually tensing each area to a solid 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 pretty cool sensation.
Put one hand, palm up, on your leg. Concentrate on the feeling 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 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 flow, or just a soft, spacious feeling.
Compare the sensation to the other hand and notice any difference.
If you wish 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.” As soon as you are finished, notice how your whole body feels. Record this feeling in each mobile, so it creates a strong impression that you are able to go back to more easily and deepen the next time you exercise.
If you exercise consciously relaxing with 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 require.