Where Do You Hold Your Tension

Suzanne Mintz

Stress is synonymous with family caregiving, although we all deal with it differently and our bodies react to it in different ways. Research has shown that family caregivers age prematurely, are more likely to experience depression, and are at risk for their own chronic conditions. How our bodies hold tension is a separate matter entirely.

Samson Moy has a degree in kinesiology (the study of human movement) and is a certified massage therapist and strength and conditioning specialist in Kensington, Maryland. We asked Sam to explain how tension forms in our bodies and what easy things we can do almost anywhere to release that tension. Here’s what he had to say:

Sam: The two most abundant ingredients in our bodies are blood and water. Think of your veins and arteries as the body’s rivers for carrying nutrients to, and waste away from, the muscles. When our muscles function properly, they are loose and blood and water flow freely through them; but when our muscles malfunction, they are tense with less fluid. Adhesions (“knots”) can form in the muscle fibers and fascia (connective tissue that surrounds muscles) when muscles become overworked, which, in turn, can cause pain.

Suzanne: Sometimes your body can be tight, but you can’t locate a specific pain point. It’s as if there is a general tightness across your entire body. What causes this?

Sam: You can be carrying tension in your body without even realizing it. Posture plays a big part in neck and back tension. It is a natural tendency to lean forward; as we age, this tendency increases. It’s made worse by the fact that so many of us spend a good part of our days sitting at a desk and leaning over a computer. At first you may not feel pain but only a little stiff. As your tension increases and it becomes harder for the flow of blood and water to make it through tight spaces, the stiffness increases to such an extent that it manifests itself as pain.

Suzanne: Are there places in the body that are more likely than others to generate tension pain? 

Sam: Yes, there are pressure points (professionals tend to use the terms “trigger points” or “tie-ins”) where a bundle of nerves and muscles come together. These are the areas where tension is concentrated. It’s important to know this because it’s possible to release tension by applying pressure directly to these points. There are a great many trigger points in the body and they are easy to find. Pay the most attention to the ones noted in the diagram below.BackofHead
Suzanne: You identify pressure points that are located at the back of the head. For some of us, headaches are our body’s way of responding to stress. Before we reach for a painkiller in a bottle, is there something else we can do to try to cure the headache?

Sam: Yes, there is. You can try applying pressure to the trigger points located at the base of the skull on either side of your head.

A headache in the front of your head can actually be caused by muscle tension in your upper neck at the base of the skull. To locate that trigger point, put your thumb midway up the back of your head. Slowly move it down until you find the top of the indention, move to the right and put your thumb on the trigger point. You’ll know when you have found it because it will be sensitive to your touch. Using the weight of your head, lean back on your thumb to increase the pressure. Hold as long as you can. Repeat two or three times. Repeat on the left side. While this technique isn’t foolproof, it does work much of the time.

Suzanne: Are there other things we can do to get rid of pain and tightness?

Sam: Most people carry a significant portion of their stress in their shoulders, neck and back, or at least that is where we feel it. A lot of the actual tightness comes from the pectoral muscles located in our chest.

A majority of the time, the pain we feel in a specific part of our body is caused by muscles on the other side — for instance, pain in your neck is associated with muscles in your chest.

An easy thing you can do to loosen these muscles is to stand straight, roll your shoulders back, and clasp your hands behind your back, turning your shoulders back toward each other.ChestStretch

Roll your elbows inward toward your body (forcing your shoulders to roll back even further) keeping your hands in a clasped neutral position. Hold your head up. Continue to push your shoulders back. Hold this position as long as you can without pain. Do this exercise multiple times during the day or whenever you feel tension — and don’t forget to breathe.

DoorStretch Another easy thing you can do is to stand in a doorway and place your forearms so that they are up against each edge of the frame, with your palms sitting flat against the outside of the frame. Walk forward until you feel the stretch. Take a few more steps until you feel you are at the maximum stretch your body will allow without pain. Hold that position for two seconds and release. Coordinate deep breathing with the stretching (e.g., exhale on the two-second hold and inhale on the release phase of the stretch). Repeat this stretch 10 to 15 times, one to three times per day, or whenever you are aware of tension.

These two exercises not only help to break tension in your back and neck, they can also help improve your posture if you do them often enough, thereby acting as a safeguard against the tension knots forming in the first place.

Suzanne: Do you have any other advice about how we can try to keep tension from forming?

Sam: In my entire career, I’ve only met one person who did not carry tension in her body. I never could find out what her secret was, but here is an easy thing we can all do to decrease the stress our bodies hold. It isn’t anything new, and I know you’ve heard it before, but deep breathing really can help. While sitting up straight with your feet firmly on the floor, take in deep breaths and exhale slowly. This brings fresh blood and oxygen to your muscles.

This brings us full circle to the discussion about keeping these liquids flowing freely through yourBody Hydrated   muscles. When you are giving someone a deep tissue massage, you can actually sense a “whoosh” when the pain knot breaks and the blood and water break through. Your body manufactures the blood that it needs, but we all have a role in ensuring that we keep ourselves sufficiently hydrated. Lack of water builds tension in the body because the muscles need the water to stay nimble and work optimally. Water is something we all need, but proper hydration is especially important for those who live very stressful lives, such as family caregivers.

Editor’s Note: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult your physician about any concerns you have regarding pain and/or hydration.




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