There are around 650 skeletal muscles in the human body. Although the obvious and primary purpose of these is to provide movement, we also often hold tension and emotions in the muscles of our body. Recent research backs up what we may have already noticed; that we tend to feel anger in the face and jaw, anxiety in the chest and belly and stress around the neck and shoulders. When we hold tension in our muscles the fibres tend to shorten, which causes tightness. Of course, we can also build up tightness and tension by doing things like sitting and working at a computer all day without proper breaks.
Interestingly, we have only sat on chairs for a recent part of human history. Apparently, Our hunter-gatherer ancestors tended to squat. As early agriculture developed, chairs were mainly for people of high status, like a King’s throne. With the industrial revolution, chairs became more common. Our great grandparents worked physically harder than we do today, so were less likely to sit during the day. Today we lead much more sedentary lifestyles, often sitting for many hours, exercising little more than our fingers.
Emotions emerged early on in our evolution before we developed the ability to communicate through language and think conceptually. There are three main purposes of emotions. To tell us that something needs attention, to communicate to others how we feel and to drive us to act. So, emotions are a potentially powerful and useful resource that can be used to complement thinking. However, as thinking became more dominant, our ability to notice and make use of emotions declined. Although there are differences between people’s sensitivity to emotions, many of us fail to notice when emotions arise, or what they are telling us.
Our ancient ancestors survived and thrived by developing inner resources to notice and respond to threats. This evolutionary bias is still with us today as our physiology, senses, and cognition prioritize and process threats much faster and with greater intensity than something that is neutral or pleasant.
Where our ancient ancestors would have encountered stress and then moved on, the challenge for us in the modern world is that we can encounter multiple mini-stressors during a day and we have neither the time nor the ability to allow the stress to dissolve naturally. So, we accumulate emotional tightness and tension in our bodies, which becomes the normal way our bodies feel. Not surprisingly, holding stress, tension and negative emotions in the body can lead to long-term mental and physical health issues – from dis-ease to disease.
So how can we notice when we take on tension as emotions arise and how can we make sure we release it before it does any damage?
A big part of the answer is to become more aware of what’s going on in our body in the present moment. For instance, say you’re in a meeting and someone challenges what you are doing on a project. You may notice your jaw, face and neck tightening and your body generally contracting as feelings of frustration and defensiveness arise.
Practising mindfulness, you’ll notice and acknowledge these feelings, maybe thinking, “Oh, there’s some anger arising”, but instead of reacting automatically, you may choose to respond more skilfully by acknowledging the other person’s concerns, as you calmly reassure them about the project. Then taking a slow deep in-breath and exhaling slowly, as you release the tension and allow the anger to dissolve away.
It’s important to realize that emotions come and go; they naturally arise, play out and dissolve if properly acknowledged and allowed to run their natural course. Emotion is energy with meaning that comes and goes; you are not your emotions. The trouble is that we sometimes strongly attach who we are with our emotions like anger and end up holding onto them in our bodies for much longer than necessary.
There are a number of ways to mindfully release tension and emotions. The first is to be calm, alert and open to your present moment experience, so you’re better able to notice tension and emotions arising in your body. The second is to acknowledge the emotion, noticing what it’s telling you, allowing the emotion to be just as it is without wanting to change it. The third is to let go of holding on and allow the tension and emotion to release and dissolve in its own time.
As you become more skilful in working with and releasing tension and emotions, you’ll become more open and flexible, working with ease in the flow of your experience, as well as being happier and healthier.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore releasing tension and emotion.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice tension and emotions rising, playing out and dissolving in your body. For instance, in a meeting or a social event.
- Use curiosity to explore what it really means to become aware of and acknowledge emotions. Exploring where you feel the emotion in your body and acknowledging what the emotion is telling you.
- When you notice tightness and tension accumulating in your body, take a break, connect into the present and breathe deeply as you relax and release the affected areas of your body.
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