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Why We Get Tight, Why It Matters & How To Let Go

At the core of my Stress Resilience Blueprint is a set of five skills. I call them mind-body skills because they're about managing the mind-body connection so that it works for you not against you. The mind-body connection is the idea that how we think, feel and act is reflected in our biology, and vice versa.

Of course it's key in stress – stress is a mind-body process. The two parts of stress are:

  • a stressor, or trigger – often thoughts, perceptions, judgements about what's happening, e.g. “my boss thinks I'm rubbish at my job”, or “I'm going to fail my exam”
  • a stress response – essentially a bodily reaction, often known as “fight-or-flight”, e.g. sweating or heart pounding, which is "designed" to help you cope better with the stressor, but which is experienced as a feeling of anxiety or stress (i.e. unpleasant).

What turns stress from a feeling of arousal, akin to excitement, into a seriously unpleasant feeling, a real problem? My answer is resistance – the inner reaction of struggling against the experience, trying to reject it or avoid it. Resistance actually amplifies the stress response, creating a vicious spiral, and making things worse not better – elsewhere I've called it the quicksand trap.

Resistance is completely understandable and natural – it's almost reflex. Imagine being at the dentist and you're about to go under the drill. You know it's going to hurt, and you don't want that – so you brace against it.

What happens in the body? Well, literally, a bracing – tightening up, as though you were going to hold off the pain. That might be useful if you really wanted to stop the dentist – but you don't, and the result is you probably make the painful feeling worse.

The thing is, the same process happens when we face a psychological “threat”, as opposed to a physical threat, e.g. your boss asks you do give a presentation (and you hate doing them). Or you're about to take a golf putt that will win you the match, and you think to yourself, "what if I fluff this …" So you tighten up – literally, your muscles contract. Maybe your jaw, or your brow, or your shoulders or your hands, but somewhere muscles clench up.

We speak of tension as an emotional experience – but usually it literally is tension in muscles. And again, it follows from inner resistance: the attitude of trying to hold off an experience.

Of course the whole process can be very subtle, as in very minor stress, e.g. you think to yourself, did I remember to lock the door? In that case you might have no awareness of the physical tightening – but nonetheless is can still be there. I speak from lots of experience of using a biofeedback device to measure this muscle tightening.

If it didn't happen, if there were no tightening of muscles, or no slight sweating in the hands, or no slight increase in heart rate, then the thought would just be a thought like any other thought – it wouldn't feel like stress.

What To Do About It

In the first place, we can learn to be more aware of this mind-body process – we can learn to notice even subtle tightening.

And we can learn to fully relax muscles. It's quite easy for most people, but if you're not aware of it you won't do anything about it. A lot of people hold residual muscle tension and are unaware of it.

Learning to fully release muscles is learning to literally let go. It's much easier with the help of biofeedback – my favourite tool for developing the stress resilience skill-set. With a biofeedback device you can measure muscle tension as EMG or electromyography. An EMG biofeedback device can detect tightening, even subtle tightening, in real time, and feeding it back means you see it as a graph on a screen, for example. Of course biofeedback isn't going to do the relaxing for you, but it's a tool for learning greater sensitivity, skill and control over muscle tension.

Physical letting go is the basis of emotional letting go. Take forgiveness as an example. When we don't forgive we speak of holding on, or holding a grudge. You might be literally holding (muscles). E.g. we might be holding the belly in, so we don't breathe freely. Noticing this and letting go of the tension opens the way for letting go of the hurtful narrative, “he wronged me”, whatever it is.

Hopefully you can get a sense of why training resilience skills using biofeedback is so useful and powerful.

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