When clients hear me talk about taking responsibility for their tension, they are often puzzled about what I mean and why it would be important. When I explain the role tension plays in the stress cycle, it’s an A-ha! moment.
If there is one hallmark symptom of unchecked stress, tension is surely that symptom. The reason is, when tension is unrelenting, the body can’t rest. And as stress builds, we become more and more exhausted simply because there is no break in the cycle of tension that would allow the relaxation necessary for rest that truly recharges and renews.
We tend to “blame” our tension on the stressors, but the truth is that tension isn’t sourced outside of us. It’s triggered by our reaction to whatever is stressing us out. This means the solution isn’t about removing all things stressful (if that were even possible). It’s about breaking our reactive habit and replacing it with deliberate focus on relaxing muscular tension through self-awareness.
I’d like you to recall a time when you were in the company of a person who was really tense. What were the signs of that tension? A strained facial expression? Shoulders up around their ears? Now, think of the last time you felt tense. What were the physical “symptoms” of the stress you were under?
If you’re like most people, muscular tension is your body’s first signal that you’re experiencing a stressful situation. Because muscular tension is built into your body’s default stress response, awareness of this tension is your first intervention step. It is your key to interrupting the stress cycle. In time, you’ll establish addressing muscular tension as your first priority when stress hits.
So, what does it look like to address tension with awareness?
It starts with noticing muscular tension when it occurs. So, for example, when you notice you’re clenching your fists, focus on relaxing your hands and breathing. If the tension is in your back, give it a relaxing stretch while you breathe. If your shoulders are tense, let them drop down, heavy and relaxed on the exhale.
Taking full responsibility for your tension is really about acknowledging that you have the power to focus your awareness, which is the first step in a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness isn’t just about being aware, but also about directing your awareness. According to a study from Harvard Medical School1, mindfulness allows the brain to form new neural connections that help regulate the emotional reactivity that fuels tension and distress. They identified four key factors that make mindfulness meditation so effective.
Dominion over where your attention goes.
Taking responsibility for your tension is about acknowledging that you have the power to focus your awareness on your physiological state.
Harvard researchers concluded what mindfulness practitioners have known for centuries—that the simplest, most reliable method for consciously directing your attention is to “focus your entire attention on your incoming and outgoing breath. Try to sustain your attention there without distraction. If you get distracted, calmly return your attention to the breath and start again.”
Dominion over where one’s attention goes is a skill that is highly developed in experienced mindfulness meditators. To master using your attention as an intervention tool to the stress cycle, you first need to learn how to tear it away from what’s triggering you. This can be anything from an unkind remark or an equipment failure to deeply upsetting news about a loved one. No matter how big or small the trigger is, the object of the exercise is to keep your attention focused on your breathing. This gives you immediate access to…
Awareness of your physiological state.
Based on stimulation in areas of the brain, Harvard researchers concluded that mindfulness meditators were aware of both bodily sensation and the emotional stimulus for it. Since you can’t regulate emotions until you can notice them, awareness of your emotions is key, as well as awareness of your body’s response to emotional triggers: muscular tension.
This is why focusing your mind’s attention on your tension with the intention to relax and release it through the breath allows you to achieve…
Harvard researchers identified different kinds of emotional regulation with practitioners of mindfulness meditation, such as participants being less likely to blurt out reactive statements or take action on reactive impulses.
They also identified cognitive changes such as developing the ability to reappraise and reinterpret the significance of a trigger. This was shown to be a means of changing and even reversing one’s response to it. So, it should be no surprise that Harvard’s researchers found that emotional regulation results in…
An empowered sense of self.
When you’re under stress, there is no greater gift than to feel empowered to handle it. Your perception of your wherewithal to cope with what’s happening determines whether or not the stress you’re under will be beneficial in the long term. To be empowered is to be able to keep your wits about you … to keep your cool … to recognize whether or not you’re seeing your situation clearly, without the distorting influence of your mind’s fears and projections.
As you start taking responsibility for your tension, you may be surprised by the things you become aware of that have been going on in your own body, even in your sleep! When you first wake up is a great time to check in. Even when awake, unconscious patterns are hard to see. It can take time for aches and pains to become chronic, and even more time to determine if your tension may be causing them.
Be compassionate with yourself and do your best to proceed without judgement. Learning anything new takes effort, at first. It takes determination and consistency. You’ll need patience to forgive yourself and start over every time old habits drag you off the path.
Reflective Exercise: Throughout your day make a point to check in with the tension in your body. Notice where you most often hold your tension, and make sure to read any tension as a signal to slow down, relax your body and breathe. Then, use a journal to keep track of your progress. You’ll only need a few lines about what you notice each day. And don’t forget to celebrate the small victories!
Take good care : )