How The Body Stores Tension

It’s an understatement to say that Western science and philosophy is dominated by the intellect. We praise logic and technological intelligence, trust rationality and build complex thought systems from words and symbols we learn to manipulate cognitively. It’s no surprise, then, that modern people can be so profoundly disembodied – that is, experiencing themselves as completely separate from their physical bodies.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
tension in body
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

We tend to forget that we are much more our limbs, breath, and heartbeats than our thoughts and feelings – we’re not merely a giant ethereal brain with a body tacked on as an afterthought! No matter how you intellectualize or rationalize your lived experience, sooner or later it comes down to the material reality of your flesh-and-blood body, in space. Right in the here and now.

Despite our tendency to neglect it, the body has its own quiet honesty and dignity in how it processes the world. The brain can tell sophisticated lies, the psyche can be in denial, and social conditioning can force us to ignore our desires and limits. But the body can never be anything other than what it is. And it doesn’t forget.

In The Beginning Was The Body

How did you experience and express your emotions when you were a child, before you could talk? For that matter, how did human beings communicate with one another before the advent of language?

Long before we learnt to engage in any other way, our body was already present, responding intelligently and dynamically to the world. Even today, our language still bears clues to our more primal beginnings: we talk of feeling things “in the gut,” of being “spineless” or having the weight of the world “on our shoulders.”

Whether it’s trauma, illness or unacknowledged emotions, our bodies are living records that capture our past experiences in the form of muscle tension. If unacknowledged and not allowed to flow out of the body again, these tensions can solidify into more serious chronic disease in the body.

Read more: The benefits of stretching go beyond the physical side. Explore why allowing the body and mind to loosen and melt can also become an emotional and spiritual practice on its own. Also, discover the benefits of yin yoga practice.

What Your Body Is Trying To Tell You

Right now, as you read these words, your body is as alive and responsive as your mind. Are there any places that are tight, sore or strained? Have repeated stressors, bad habits and disconnection resulted in you losing touch with your physical self? Rather than being a nuisance, these body aches and tensions can give you valuable insight into the more unconscious parts of your experience.

Read more: By no longer trying to fight against the way things are, we open to the experience of spaciousness. Read more about the meaning of physical and spiritual surrender in yoga and meditation practice.

Shoulder Tension: Excessive Burdens

Like the mythical Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders, those with shoulder tension may be struggling under too many obligations. This could mean a heavy workload and hours spent hunched over a computer, or it could mean social and emotional loads you’re carrying for others. Perhaps shoulder tension is quietly urging you to shrug off any labour that’s not strictly your responsibility.

Read more: Saying no becomes harder and harder as we grow up. Learn how to say no without feeling guilty.

Stomach & Digestion: Fear

Our GI tract is called the “second brain” for a good reason. The bulk of your immunity is gut-based, and all the same endorphins found in the brain are processed in the intestines. Long-held anxieties can show up as irritable bowels, “butterflies” and knots in the stomach or even ulcers. Release this tension by taking time to verbalize your fears, rather than store them in your body. Can you articulate clearly the things that are frightening you?

Headaches: Loss Of Control

The brain is like the highly sensitive control panel for the rest of your body. Inside your head, billions of neurons snap away tirelessly to process incoming information, synthesize plans, process emotions and more. A head bursting with tension is a little like your computer CPU overheating – tension here can mark feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control or rushed. A possible remedy is to pause and cut down on incoming stimuli: close your eyes, sit somewhere quiet and unplug from the rushing thoughts for a moment.

Overall Aches & Fatigue: Resentments & Old Traumas

In the wild, an animal responds to danger by activating flight-or-fight mode. However, once the threat is gone, all tension is released and the animal goes about its business again. Holding onto old grudges, resentments and angry feelings unnaturally prolongs this cortisol-infused state, keeping the body in a state of suspended tension. It’s exhausting! In this way, muscle spasms and fatigue can be understood as the physical manifestation of blocked emotions, repressed thoughts or stagnant fears that have not been completely processed.

Read more: Mental fatigue is just as real as the physical one. Discover how to combat brain fog.

Body Care For Self-Development

In the realm of personal development, much is written about goal setting and productivity, about self-esteem, purpose, energy and creativity. But spare a thought for your body, which works faithfully in the background to support every one of these endeavours. The body has its own wisdom. When we speak its language of tension and release, we become not just imbalanced “brains on legs” but whole, embodied beings.

With a little compassion and body awareness, we can learn to read tension in our bodies and respond with kindness. Stretching, yoga, dancing, or massage can all work to release bodily tensions, and the thoughts and emotions that go along with them. By learning to process our experience on all channels — mental, psychological, spiritual and physical – we create a deeper, more complete sense of wellness.

These two guided meditations help to become aware of tension in the body and softly release into peace:

  1. The Tension Release Meditation Vidyamala Burch 5:46
  2. Tension Release Manoj Dias 9:00

Also, discover Vidyamala Burch’s inspiring article about the effects of practicing mindfulness on pain management.

Meditation. Free.