Photo: James Jordan / Flickr
In the previous post, we explored some of the physical causes of recurring or chronic tension in specific areas of the body. Hopefully, in these past days, you've started to become aware of the physical behaviors that create or intensify discomfort in your body, and have begun the process of adjusting your behaviors in response to what you're finding. If you're interested in moving forward with a little help, contact me or schedule yourself for a Move Well or Private Yoga Session with me, and we'll work together to find solutions you can weave into your daily life. If you'll be continuing on your own, be encouraged and reminded that changing habits takes time. Keep your head up, and keep looking in.
Today, we'll begin exploring some of the more subtle, yet powerful, contributors to recurrent and chronic tension in our bodies - our thoughts, emotions, and our breath. Our emotional state, our breath, and our physical tension all inform one another. When something startling occurs (i.e. a car cuts us off on the road) we often gasp, pull our bellies in, tense our shoulders and arms, and breathe high up into our chests. These short breaths leave our bodies feeling short of oxygen, and more shallow, quick breaths - gasping - will likely follow as we try to get enough air. When we breathe in this way, we recruit muscles in the neck and shoulders not meant primarily for breathing, which places an undue and unsustainable load on them. Retaining this muscular holding in the torso and upper body will create muscular tension, discomfort and pain. In this scenario, an outside event stimulated our nervous system, inspired feelings of fear or anxiety, and changed our breathing. We felt fearful or anxious, and our breathing and posture changed to reflect that. Ideally, once the immediate danger or threat has been removed or dealt with, we would return to a deeper, slower breathing pattern, allowing our diaphragm to move freely once again, removing the demand we placed on those peripheral muscles, and allowing our nervous system to continue to calm itself.
“One of the first things that happens when we respond to a stressful situation is to change the way we breathe. Such adjustments can create as well as be the result of physical, emotional, or psychological stress. Disordered breathing is the absolute best indicator to us that all is not well." - Donna Farhi, from The Breathing Book
But we don't always fully leave these moments of threat or danger, physically or psychologically. If we routinely have experiences we perceive as threatening (i.e. daily hours in rush hour traffic, frequent interactions with someone who puts us emotionally "on guard", or perhaps a running negative internal dialogue that frequently wounds us) we can begin to hold our bodies and our breath in ways that don't serve our ease and wellbeing. And we might begin to perceive these breath and tension patterns as normal - no longer noticing that they are even active. The loop works in the opposite way, also. If we hike our shoulders up high, grip our hands into fists, breathe high into the chest and restrict the movement of our diaphragm, we can actually generate feelings of fear and anxiety within our system. And those feelings would then reinforce the disordered breathing and the muscular tension that generated them. A cycle has begun.
When endeavoring to understand our own longstanding pain and discomfort, its important to enter the process with curiosity and compassion. Cursing our tight shoulders is not helpful here! Neither is an attitude of "attack and conquer!". The body is a friend, our feelings are messengers, and we're much more likely to get the information we seek if we treat them as such. It's also helpful to remember that by adulthood, most - if not all - of us have developed some tension patterns. You're certainly not alone, odd or damaged for having patterns of your own! Most of us react to pain by moving away from it or numbing it out in some way - that's a fairly normal human response. But when the pain originates within our own bodies and when it's consistent, our attention is being requested. What does our discomfort have to teach us about ourselves? What important messages might we be blocking or numbing? What in us wants to be seen? What does our body need from us?
“We depend on kinesthetic awareness, that is, sensing what is going on in our bodies and guts, in many ways to know how we feel. Kinesthetic and psychological awareness are linked.
– Greene & Goodrich-Dunn, from The Psychology of the Body
At this point, we would do well to consider whether we might benefit from professional help in entering into inquiry and dialogue with our pain. If we have great anxiety at the thought of exploring the sensations in our body, that might be an indication that help would be advised. If we know or suspect ourselves to have experienced trauma in the past, assistance and support may well be necessary to help us navigate our initial explorations. If we consider this and find an internal sense of relief and comfort in the idea of receiving professional support, we might seek out a somatic therapist, a psychotherapist, or a counselor/yoga therapist to assist us in uncovering our bodies' messages in ways that allow us to feel safe.* Such support can prove invaluable.
“If you are ready to turn your attention to entering your pain, you will probably need help – chances are you won’t know where or how to begin. One way to begin is by studying yourself." - Carolyn Myss
If after reflection we determine that we presently have the stability, resourcefulness and curiosity to explore our discomfort ourselves, how might we do so? We'll explore that question in the next post in this series, so stay tuned! Until then, breathe deeply, practice often, and be well.
*Additional provider recommendations and resources can be found here.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.