Sometimes people are skeptical when I say that stress always manifests itself somewhere in the body. They don’t recognize their symptoms – the muscle aches, stomach aches, headaches, or autoimmune conditions – as being related to stress in their lives. But even when we can’t draw a perfectly straight line from one to the other, they are connected. Stress shows up and it hurts.
For me, the left side of my neck and sometimes my left shoulder are where I hold tension. I might think that the chronic neck pain was something “more serious” if it didn’t almost totally disappear when I go on vacation. What a cliché! All I have to do is go somewhere, anywhere, other than home and voila! No neck pain. The fact is that pain and tension caused by stress is serious, not least because when it becomes chronic, it can start to be a stressor in and of itself.
Where do you hold on to emotions? Marlynn Wei, writing on the Psychology Today web site, explains how our bodies hold emotional memories, outlining research that shows how specific emotions are experienced in certain parts of the body. Yoga, for instance, teaches that negative emotions are often held in the hip area; something I’ve experienced by feeling very emotional after an intense hip opening yoga practice. It is as if something has been unleashed that was held in for a long time.
My therapist used to ask where in the body I was feeling something when I talked about a particularly difficult emotional experience. At first, I struggled to figure out where I felt it. I wanted to say, “nowhere”. But over time, I became aware that I was feeling it in my body, usually my chest, which, the research shows, is where anxiety and fear often show up.
When we hold this tension in certain parts of the body, and it becomes our “normal,” it can be hard to develop a new pattern of being. Humans, unfortunately, don’t come with a reset button – we have to work a little harder for it. As one yoga teacher put it, you have to “give the tissues permission to let go.” A possible way to do that is to move the energy to a different part of the body.
A Dahn yoga teacher once told my husband that his chi (or energy) was too much in his head, and needed to be moved down, more to his gut. Many of us live too much in our heads, and not enough in our hearts and physical bodies. The whole idea of “chi”, or “chakras” in the yoga tradition, is to keep energy flowing through the body, rather than having it be stuck in one place. Sometimes when my neck hurts, I feel like my head is too heavy to carry around, or that even a scarf around my neck is too much weight. How can I move that energy to a different part of the body? How can I stop carrying the weight of the world on my neck and shoulders?
A good first step is the Body Scan (instructions here). By mindfully bringing awareness to each part of the body, we realize where discomfort exists and we can then bring some extra love to that area. Because muscle tension can lead to decreased blood flow, and therefore less oxygen, focus on “breathing in” to that area. Visualize blood flowing to the sore muscle, bringing restorative oxygen. Then on the out breath, let go of it. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as bringing “wise attention” to our symptoms.
Progressive muscle relaxation also teaches how to recognize tension in the body by deliberately tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. Another thing it teaches is that one part of the body can be energetic and strong while the rest of the body stays relaxed and soft. So, for example, I can hold a strong yoga warrior pose in the legs, while allowing my shoulders and head to relax in a languid reverse warrior. That brings ease to my effort, as Soren Gordhamer would say.
Yoga has proven helpful to me. With my subscription to YogaGlo, I can try all sorts of classes, from 5 minutes to 90, that focus on just one part of the body. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of short practices for the neck and shoulders. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how connected one part of the body is to another. One 10 minute class didn’t even involve the neck directly; instead, I worked on the curvature of my spine and practiced walking around the room with my shoulders back and my chin up like a model!
Of course, ultimately we have to address the underlying triggers for the stress. When I feel tense and I do a quick mental review of what could be wrong, often there isn’t anything specific. So I remind myself to ask, “What’s right?” instead. It helps me focus on letting go of the background fears, and just being in the present, unguarded. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,
When you let go mentally, you relax physically, because the body and the mind are two aspects of one reality….Through stopping, whether in walking or sitting meditation, you are in control of the situation…you regain sovereignty over yourself.