We have over 600 muscles in the body made up of fibres that can shorten or lengthen. They are long and flat when relaxed, but when our nervous systems are stressed, the blood flow to the muscles can become reduced, causing them to tighten.
Muscle tension is the body’s defence against injury and pain, and this tension releases when short term stress passes. However, with chronic or long term stress, the muscles in the body are in a constant state of tension.
Low-grade chronic stress not only leads to muscle tension but can also lead to long term health conditions. Fear, worry, and anxiety can contribute to muscle pain and tightness and the production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can take a toll on the body physically and mentally, increasing things like heart rate and blood pressure.
Stress Response vs Relaxation Response
When we get stressed or fearful, the logical thinking part of the brain (Prefrontal cortex) goes offline. The Amygdala (emotional response centre of the brain) sends blood flow to areas like our arms and legs, preparing our body to respond to the stress by either running away, defending us or hiding, aka fight, flight or freeze.
After the initial response to the stress, our bodies need to go into safety mode then recovery mode to release the hormones like cortisol built up during the stressful event. For example, if we suddenly came upon a giant venomous snake in the bush, our initial reaction might be to run the other way (stress response aka flight mode), until it was out of striking distance (safety mode), then we'd probably want to sit down and recover.
The Relaxation Response is the direct opposite of the Stress Response and is the optimal condition for the body to heal and function efficiently and effectively. We can cultivate deep relaxation when we use tools like meditation to practice being in our bodies, sitting in stillness and quieting our minds (by giving it something else to focus on). Practising relaxation exercises such as belly breathing and body scans help release muscle tension, slow the heart rate and enhance sleep quality.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
We go about our day holding tension in our bodies without realising it. If I told you right now to drop your shoulders and create a space between the top and bottom rows of your teeth, you would more than likely be able to do both, not realising you were holding your shoulders up or clenching your jaw.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR involves tensing then relaxing a group of muscles. This reminds your body of the difference between feeling tense and feeling relaxed. It can be done in three simple steps:
Focus on each muscle group one at a time, e.g. all the muscles in your face (forehead, eyes, jaw).
Breathe in and scrunch those muscles together.
Breathe out and relax all those muscles, letting them soften and release.
Repeat this for each muscle group, e.g. neck, shoulders, arms, hands, stomach, chest, back, glutes, legs, toes. You can watch me demonstrate this in the video below.
A body scan is a form of Mindfulness Meditation and focuses your attention on the body's physical sensations to relax both mentally and physically. By tuning in to your body, you are bringing awareness to tension you may not have noticed to release it. This is a longer process than the PMR exercise above and can be 20 to 40 minutes.
If you'd like to try it you can listen to my free body scan relaxation meditation.
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