The mind body connection the relationship between emotions and physical tension

Have you ever noticed how tension in your body seems to mirror your emotional state? Picture a scene where you are driving a car in heavy traffic. You’ve already had a tough day at work and a conflict you had with your colleague is re-playing in your mind. Your neck and shoulders are tense and you can feel a headache coming on. Your knuckles are white from grabbing the steering wheel and your breathing is fast and superficial. 

Have you ever noticed how tension in your body seems to mirror your emotional state? Picture a scene where you are driving a car in heavy traffic. You’ve already had a tough day at work and a conflict you had with your colleague is re-playing in your mind. Your neck and shoulders are tense and you can feel a headache coming on. Your knuckles are white from grabbing the steering wheel and your breathing is fast and superficial. 

You are in a state of stress and the corresponding state of fight-flight in your nervous system. When you arrive home ideally you can relax again, breathe out and let the tension go. Or not? Often the state of survival becomes chronic as does the tension. Rather than expressing our feelings, dealing with our conflicts and staying in the here-and-now, we store our emotions away in the form of tension in muscles (myo) and connective tissue (fascia). The feelings go underground, but they do not go away.

Body Armor

Wilhelm Reich was a student of Sigmund Freud and the first psychotherapist to start working with the body in therapy. He noticed that clients were tensing their bodies and holding their breath. When he encouraged them to breathe deeply, withheld emotions would rise to the surface. He called this phenomenon “body-armor”; tension meant to protect us from feeling and expressing undesirable or unacceptable feelings. 

It starts early. A child who gets ridiculed for crying or becoming angry quickly learns to survive by tensing the right muscles to suppress those feelings. At some point this mechanism becomes unconscious and the child stops experiencing them all together. The reward for adopting this survival mechanism is staying “safe” from getting in the double bind of feeling things which are not allowed anyway. However, the price to pay is becoming cold and numb, except for a general feeling of unease and apprehension – we become anxious. Another side effect is chronic fatigue. It takes a lot of energy to keep the lid on a lot of bottled up tension.

The body-armor also protects us from the outside world. Nothing can touch us anymore. We’re in control and develop a certain posture and behaviors that reinforce the status quo; we become pleasers, bullies, intellectuals, seducers, endurers or whatever else does the job for us of surviving and getting by.

Muscles and Connective Tissue – Myofascia

The muscles and fascia (myofascia) play a crucial role in this dynamic. As our mind is the source of our conscious thoughts, the body becomes the unconscious. The repressed material stored in the form of chronic tension shows up in the form of physical aches and pains or simply as tiredness.

As a bodyworker, I have found that different areas of the body hold more emotionally-charged tension than others. Below are some of the common areas of pain or tension and their emotional relationships. 

The Back

Lower back pain is something most of us will experience at some time or other in our lives and has taken on epidemic proportions in our society. Partly to blame is our sedentary lifestyle, but this region is also deeply tied to our feelings about ourselves and the experience of our emotions. Feelings of anger tend to linger here as well as feelings of unworthiness, shame and guilt. Learning to express yourself responsibly to the right people at the right time and at the right place will fuel your personal and creative growth, give you a better self-esteem and literally strengthen your back.

Between your shoulders and in your upper back there is anger as well. This is one of the places where you hold back aggression and the impulse to push away or strike back. Developing a round upper back and keeping your head down can also be the result of abuse and humiliation. Walking around with a “turtle shell” on your back is saying something about how you really feel deep down.

The Shoulder and Neck

If you have been feeling overburdened and weighed down by the stresses of life, you will feel a tightening of the shoulders and the neck muscles. Looking at our phones, driving a car and working on the computer eventually gives us a posture of submission and reinforces the feeling of “carrying the world on our shoulders”. Tightening your shoulder and neck muscles is also a fear reaction, giving that classic “coat hanger” look where the shoulders keep inching up towards the ears. 

Having a stiff neck and neck pain is related to trust issues. By birth you are not able to support your own neck – your muscles simply are not ready to hold up a head which in newborns is heavy and big in relation to a small body. If your parents were absent and not able to support your neck you had to do it yourself, tightening those muscles prematurely and thus embodying the feeling of not getting the support you need. 

Hands and Wrists

When people overstep your borders there is a reflex to push away which we subdue, often even without being aware of it. Next to getting really tense the myofascia in the arms can also simply lose its tone and the arms end up like two appendages dangling, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the body.

Working with the frozen energy of arms and hands can bring up old memories of feeling powerless and giving up in a situation where you had no choice but to just try to survive. Realizing that that was then and this is now can empower someone to again be able to both keep someone at a safe distance as well as bringing another person closer for intimate connection.

The Face and Jaw

 Many people clench their jaws as a way of withholding unacceptable feelings like anger and aggression. Grinding your teeth at night is a way to deal with this unconscious material, waking up exhausted and with pain in your jaw. Frown lines on your forehead tell a story of worry and anxiety and we all know how to tense up to keep a straight face so as not to show our feelings and instead project an image to the world of how we want to be seen. 

Working on the myofascia of the face can bring great relief and almost feel like taking a mask off. Your face gets expressive again, allowing you to project a more authentic self to the outside world and invite social connection.

Chest and Belly

The chest houses feelings of vulnerability and emotional pain. I order to not feel our hurt we restrict our breathing and make the thorax into a “rib cage” where nothing can escape nor enter. Our heart is then protected but also disconnected from receiving love from others in our lives. Deep breathing and touch can help you feel the sadness stored away in a tight chest and open you up to loving connections again. By grieving your losses and honoring your feelings you will feel be able to breathe more freely and your heart will feel lighter.

Adding a tire of fat to your belly is another way of armoring yourself and creating a buffer, a distance between yourself and others. It is a very vulnerable part of you and I have yet to work with someone without tension and holding in the abdominal area. Indigestion and  stomach cramps can mean that there are things or people in your life you “can’t stomach” or you carry an overload of anxiety and fear.

Your Pelvis and Glutes

This area is the seat of our sexual organs and energy. Since sexuality is a loaded subject for most of us there is a lot of holding there. We tense our perineum and gluteal muscles as a way of feeling less, making us inflexible and rigid. Letting go of this control and connecting with the fear behind it can have an effect on the whole body since the pelvis functions as a keystone, connecting the legs with the rest of the body.

The psoas muscle goes from the top of the femur, through the pelvis and connects to the lumbar part of the spine. Popularly known as the “soul muscle” it is a place where trauma and stress settles. Helping the psoas release and relax can bring about a profound change throughout the whole bodymind.

Legs and Feet

Our legs say a lot about our standing in life. Are you standing on your own feet? Are you grounded in the here-and-now, in contact with the earth underneath you or are you “up in the air”?  We unconsciously lock our knees to try to keep control, but in doing so we make ourselves more unbalanced and unable to roll with the punches of life. The collapsed arches of our feet make us shuffle our way through life rather than taking it in stride. Curled toes tell a story of someone feeling unsafe, grasping for something to hold on to. 

The legs keep a lot of stagnant energy. When you want to run away and force yourself to stay put the latent energy gets stored in tight and taut myofascia. Likewise with the suppressed energy from the urge to kick something or someone. 

Long Term Effects on The Body

The connection between emotions, fascia, and the immune system has gained significant attention in recent research. It is now recognized that emotions can have a profound impact on fascial tissues and immune responses in the body.

Studies have shown that emotional stress can alter the activity of immune cells within the fascial tissues, resulting in increased inflammation and reducing the immune response.

German physiologist and anatomist Jochen Staubesand has proposed a close connection between chronic sympathetic activation (fight-flight – emotional stress)) and stiffness in connective tissue. Staubesand emphasized that any intervention in the fascia affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as a whole and all organs directly influenced by it: 

“It now appears that fascial tone is influenced and regulated by the state of the autonomic nervous system. Furthermore—and this should have implications for your work—any intervention in the fascial system also affects the autonomic system as a whole, as well as all organs directly influenced by the autonomic nervous system. To put it simply, any intervention in the fascia is also an intervention in the autonomic system”.

Bodyworkers have long been able to witness changes in the ANS by working on the myofascia. Science has now been able to discover direct connections between certain sensors in fascia and the ANS. 

Ways of Personal Growth – Breaking The Negative Cycle

For us bodyworkers, it is the profound effect deep bodywork has on both the emotional as wel as physical well-being of our clients which is guiding our work. Working on spasm and tension in any of the above mentioned areas provides relief and increases body awareness. However, to really  achieve a lasting break-through in the cycle of repression- tension – depression, a willingness to recognize and acknowledge the mind-body connection is needed; that there is unconscious “stuff” under the radar having an effect on both body and soul. 

By understanding the feelings and giving them meaning we can put them in perspective – that was then and this is now. A young child had no choice but to survive. Today you do not have to live by those old defense mechanisms anymore. You have choices and can respond to the moment rather than react to the past.

Connecting with a felt sense and learning to listen to and to trust your “gut feelings” is a way of changing your relationship with your bodymind. Have you ever experienced going in a circle in your head, re-thinking the same thoughts over and over again? Well, welcome to the club! Your head has a lot of voices and they all want to know it better. When you are in touch with your felt sense, you just know it says something authentic about you. Your body does not do bullshit.

Responding to life’s challenges with care and compassion is much more than hunkering down and simply coping with everyday hurdles. It involves a shift in our attitude, thinking and even lifestyle choices. Moving your body and getting enough quality sleep is essential. Practices like meditation and breathing techniques will improve the quality of your health and well-being. Even more important is maintaining a healthy social network of family, friends and colleagues. When someone is there to “back you up” and a friend “has your back” you are less likely to develop back-pain in the first place!

Bodywork is working ‘bottom up”: by freeing you from your body armor in a safe and supportive environment, you can connect to the emotional energy stored as tension. With more emotional and physical awareness you will be able to live your life with a better attitude and more ease. Being in the fight-flight mode of your nervous system again becomes the exception rather than the rule and your immune system and whole being benefits. 

Allow yourself to “feel it to heal it.” One of the easiest ways to let go of muscle tension is to actively feel and acknowledge emotions when they come. Allowing old feelings to emerge in the presence of a compassionate bodyworker or body-psychotherapist is often enough to allow healing to happen on a deeper level. Feelings want to get felt, embraced and understood. This allows them to get integrated and transform into something else. Emotions are e-motion – energy-in-motion. The only problematic emotions are the ones we push away.

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