Most of us attribute muscle tension to stress, which is true, but not the whole truth. One of the primary functions of muscle tension is to initiate action. If that action is not taken, then the muscle simply remains tense, and it continues to build and build within the body until we find ourselves at the point where we can not turn our neck to check the blind spot while driving because the tension is so bad! In this writing, I will explain basic mechanics of how muscles work to allow us to take action, explain how this impacts our physical comfort and emotional/mental well being, and review some ways we can use this information to take better care of ourselves.
Basic Muscle Mechanics
In order for an action to take place, at least one muscle group contracts, bringing a certain level of tension to the muscle. This contraction provides potential energy needed to initiate and support movement. Depending on the complexity of the action, when the movement happens the muscle group can then release the tension and other muscles may be simultaneously contracting to support continued complex movement or momentum. If you want to explore this for yourself, try making any simple movement and identify the muscle area that contracts in order to initiate the movement… There is always at least one!
Okay, so you may be asking yourself how this is relevant to you. You see, this means that throughout the day, your body is most likely naturally reacting to certain situations wanting to take action. Your body is designed to take action in order to keep you safe and maximize your potential to thrive in an environment. However, societal norms may dictate that you consciously or unconsciously resist the urge to respond in the way your body would naturally like to respond, because your brain knows that such actions in the given social environment would have negative consequences. When your body begins to initiate action through muscle tension, but then is not able to complete that action (for whatever reason), the energy gets stuck and creates lasting tension.
For example, let's examine a scenario in which you get called into your boss's office, and you find that you are getting some difficult feedback from your boss. It is very likely that your body is responding in this situation. Perhaps you notice your jaw and neck muscles become tight. This could indicate that your body really wants to speak, make sound or yell, perhaps even cry. Perhaps you notice your legs tense up. This could mean that your body wants to run out of the room. Perhaps you notice your shoulders and arms tense. This could mean that you want to punch your boss in the face! (not recommended!) Or, it could also mean that your arms want to embrace your torso in a self soothing form of comfort.
The type of action your body wants to take is completely personal. Because of potential consequences for your actions, it is likely that you will automatically shut down the action without necessarily consciously thinking about it, even if your body was telling you that it wanted to move in a certain way.
So, what does this mean?
Well, it means that if some sort of action is not eventually allowed to happen, the tension will remain in the muscles. No matter how much you try to relax or distract from it, the tension will still be there. Sometimes, in order to deal with tension, you may implement passive means of trying to get to a place of relaxation. For example, you might come home, plop down on the couch and watch television, or take a nap. Some of you may even try to sit and meditate, or take a bath. Don't get me wrong! All of these self care strategies can be really useful and beneficial! I am a big advocate of all of them in the right time and place. However, what I am saying is that for the purposes of relieving muscle tension, it would benefit you to do some movement before these forms of coping in order to get the maximum benefits.
The ideal way to handle this build up of muscle tension is to allow times throughout your day where you can appropriately move the action energy out of your body. Here are some simple ways to do this:
However, it could be that you may not be able to address these things until the end of your day. If this is the case, here are some additional ways to recuperate that may take a bit more time:
Emotional/Mental Bonus Points
Although simply doing any of the above movement activities will help release the needed trapped energy in the body, you will get bonus emotional/mental well being points if you can connect the movement to the circumstance that led to the tension in the first place. For example, if you decide to go on a jog after work in order to release some of the tension built up from when you wanted to run out of your boss's office, spend some time visualizing that moment in your boss's office while you are jogging and feel your body getting the opportunity to ¨run out of the office.¨ It will help you ¨rewrite history¨ in a sense, and you will feel less stuck or trapped when recalling the experience in the future.
I would also like to note that the above lists are simply suggestions that require different levels of accessibility and time commitment, but please BE CREATIVE with what works to help you actively relieve built up tension in your body. As long as what you choose to do does not cause you injury or pain, there is no wrong way to move, so please use your imagination and really go for it!
Then, AFTER you move your body a bit, feel free to bring in those soothing, relaxation methods that work for you such as watching your favorite television show or reading your favorite book. You will find that the benefits are enhanced by releasing that tension first because your muscles will be able to achieve a deeper level of relaxation.
I highly recommend implementing this as a daily practice, whether you are able to take small amounts of time throughout your day, whether you take time at the end of your day, or both. Stick with it for at least two weeks, and you will notice a big difference. Because you may have built up levels of chronic tension in the body, it could take a bit of time to clear that out, but keep things consistent for a bit, and you will not only feel better physically, but you will likely gain insight into patterns of how you react in certain situations throughout your day that you will find useful. So... get moving!