Rest is essential for health and wellness. It’s the flip side of the movement coin.
We all need true relaxation so our bodies can switch from action mode to healing and recovery mode. This can mean anything from letting go of physical tension patterns, to getting enough sleep.
Have you ever noticed that your shoulders get tight and sore when you’re stressed?
This is a very common physical reaction to high stress levels, and there are lots of other ones. Jaw clenching, belly tightening, tense traps and shoulders, tight head and jaw muscles or a tight pelvic floor are all very common. It’s normal for our muscles to tighten when we’re anxious or stressed. But, it’s important to learn how to let go of habitual, because it’s not awesome for our bodies.
Constantly held tension has numerous physical downsides:
- Tension patterns actually can pull our body into unhelpful shapes and prevent us from moving well.
- Chronic tension can hurt – headaches, jaw pain, neck pain and muscle soreness are commonly related to tension.
- Tension prevents our muscles from working well, because a muscle that’s already held tight and short can’t do its job when it needs to contract further. Pelvic floor and core muscle tension are big contributors to pelvic floor and GI issues.
Why Do Our Muscles Get Tense?
Muscle tension is a natural reaction to stress.
What’s not natural is the very high level of chronic stress we see in modern life. Demanding schedules, high noise levels, artificial light, widespread sleep issues, traumatic experiences, modern diets, a constant stream of media, social media and other inputs, and stressful jobs are all contributors.
Meanwhile we spend very little time doing nothing, spending relaxing time with friends and family, moving our bodies, or getting outdoors in natural environments, all of which have been found to help reduce stress.
How Can I Release Muscle Tension?
Let’s start by getting really clear on what we mean by tension. I’m talking about holding a muscle in a contracted state – exactly what happens if you take a hand and make a fist. For as long as you hold that fist, you’re creating tension. When you let your fist relax and allow your hand to open, you’re releasing tension.
It’s not an issue to make a fist; even to hold it for a while. It’s only a problem when that’s the chronic, long term state of your hand.
How we release muscle tension depends on where it is in the body and why it’s there in the first place. But there are a number of movement tools we can use to help us. They’re interrelated – explore the ones that seem most helpful, and you’ll get better at the others at the same time.
#1 Just Let It Go
Tension is created by our brain and nervous system, and sometimes all it takes to let go is to…let go. Each time we become aware of our tension, we simply ask our body to relax. When the tension creeps back in, we ask again. And again, kindly and gently, each time we notice that pattern.
Just letting go is a simple but not always easy solution! And it’s not easy partly because we can’t always feel our tension, and partly because we need to come back to it again and again. Changing habits takes time.
Use the tools below to get better at feeling your own tension and practicing letting it go, then apply your skills in daily life with mindful practice.
#2 Try Some Self Massage
Often we have a hard time letting go of tension because we can’t even feel it in the first place.
We’re so used to feeling tense that it’s just part of how we live.
To help with finding and feeling tension, I love using self-massage. And my favourite self-massage tools are the Yoga Tune Up balls created by Jill Miller.
When we roll our tense spots, it’s really easy to figure out what’s tight. We very quickly find tender, sore and even painful spots! Then, we can use the balls to help us relax those sore bits.
The key here is to be gentle with yourself – you’re not a piece of play-dough! It’s much more effective (and safe, and pleasant) to roll kindly and ask your body to let go – don’t just go in there and try to squash the sore bits!
Here’s a nice upper back rolling technique you can try – use tennis balls if you don’t have Yoga Tune Up balls (not something super hard). There’s lots more to discover! You can try Jill Miller’s excellent book, The Roll Model Method,and I also share rolling techniques on my YouTube channel and in my Take10 coaching program.
#3 Practice Releasing With Exercises
Letting go of tension is a skill. And most of us aren’t very good at it (even though we’re great at creating tension!). There are lots of great exercises to help you learn the skill of releasing. Often these seem like strange exercises, because they’re typically very gentle and don’t feel like much. But that’s because all we’re doing is asking different parts of our body to stop being tense!
My all-time favourite release is for the psoas muscles. These guys are deep, deep core muscles that run from your legs to your spine. Because they’re so long, they have a big impact when they’re too tense! And because they are part of our bodies’ main stress response, they’re too tight in most modern humans.
Give this amazing psoas release a try and see what you notice! But remember to do the before and after test, because you’re probably not going to feel a lot during the exercise itself (and sometimes it can take more than one try to get a change – remember that we’re trying to learn a new skill here).
The psoas release, and the other release exercises I teach in my Take10 coaching program, are designed to help your body move with better alignment without having to force yourself into a new shape.
Because if you have tension that’s pulling you into an unhealthy shape (like your psoas), and then you tighten something else to get yourself into a better shape, you’re just fighting tension with tension. You’re in good position but you’re getting there in a way that’s probably not helping you get healthier. It’s much more helpful in the long term to learn to just let go of that held tension in the first place!
Dig A Bit Deeper
Body tension is a combination of our natural response to stress and our unique movement backgrounds. We can improve it with movement tools, but if the cause is our life stress, this should be addressed as well. Getting plenty of sleep, giving ourselves permission to have down time, and choosing leisure activities that promote relaxation are all tools to consider. These aren’t in my scope of practice as a movement coach, but I want to mention them because they’re really important!
Allow Yourself to Have Real Down Time
Humans need real down-time on a regular basis. This means time without TV, screens, podcasts, music, and other fun but intense activities. This helps us access our parasympathetic nervous system – the healing and recovering side of things.
A meditation practice can be very helpful for building down time into your life. Hiking or forest bathing or other time spent in nature are also great options. Many studies have found that time spent in nature is great for reducing stress (and as a bonus you can get more walking in too).
Get Plenty Of High Quality Sleep
We all need to get large quantities regular sleep so our brains and bodies can heal and recover from the demands of life.
Sleep is absolutely essential to our lives and it’s only recently that we’ve discovered all of its many functions. We need sleep to learn, and to store memories. Sleep is when our brains get cleaned of the toxic build-ups that are known to be linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia. And sleep is essential for our immune systems.
How much sleep do we need? It does vary from person to person but a minimum of 7 hours a night seems to be about right for most humans. It’s pretty simple to tell if you’re personally getting enough, though. If you can wake up without an alarm clock feeling refreshed, and if you can make it through the day without feeling sleepy AND without using caffeine, then you should be good.
Mouth breathing, sleep apnea and other breathing issues can be a huge problem for sleep. Our bodies can’t relax if we can’t breathe well! Find a good professional provider such as The Breathe Institute if you think that your breathing could be contributing to your sleep issues.
Making sleep a priority and dealing with sleeping issues are both great habit changes for a healthy life. “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker is an excellent book that you can check out to learn more about why sleep is so important and how to improve your sleep.
Learning To Relax
For many of us it’s not easy to learn to relax, whether physically or through changing our life and habits. As with all changes, giving ourselves permission can be the most important first step. Then adding small changes over time. But also like other changes, little things add up over time!
Courses For Resting & Releasing
Take10 Online Movement Coaching
Get stronger, more mobile and learn how to move better so your body can work better and feel better, in bite sized chunks.
More Resting Resources
Tongue Position And Breathing Part 1 (Blog Post)
Tongue Position And Breathing Part 2 (Blog Post)
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
The Roll Model Method by Jill Miller
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