You probably know that you tend to hunch your shoulders or clench your teeth when you’re stressed. But did you know that your body actually physically stores emotions like stress?
Just a snippet of science
A quick note on the science before we move onto the stress busters: integrated physiological research has shown that there is a mind-body connection whereby we store stress in our physical bodies.
Feelings (like stress) result in a peptide being released. Our organs, tissues, muscles and skin all have peptide receptors within them. They can access and store the emotional responses they receive. Often for very prolonged periods of time when these emotions have not been properly released.
Have you ever done a hip opener in a yin yoga class and felt like you want to cry after? Or suddenly felt a wave of emotion during a massage? Deep stretching or massage of areas where we store emotions release these and provoke such reactions (I had a friend recently who burst out crying uncontrollably after a massage, much to the disturbance of her masseuse).
There is an incredible amount of work that can be done through the principle of mind/body connection, including uncovering deep set trauma, or releasing day to day tension. For stress in particular, Lauren Roxburgh and Jill Willard describe five stress container areas:
The stored tension in these areas can lead to chronic pain, knots and spasms. Muscle tension could be decreasing blood flow, leading to less oxygen being delivered and a build up of lactic acid and toxic metabolites in your muscles. This tension blocks the natural flow of energy through your body, constricting you even further.
Doesn’t sound so good does it?
How to release stress
Firstly, learn where you tend to store stress in your body. Next time you are consciously feeling stressed, do this: scan your body, area by area (forehead, cheeks, chin, lips, jaw etc.) searching for any sign of tension. Just bring awareness to each area (saying the name can help) and pause there briefly.
Secondly, when you find an area of tension, pause for slightly longer. Feel that tension and imagine it as a different being or entity within you. Ask it why it is feeling tense. Do not over think the response, but see what pops into your brain. It’s exceptionally insightful - you’ve just found one way of diving into your subconscious mind.
Third, repeat this all over your body and do it every time you feel stressed. Over time, you’ll start to notice the warning signs - a slight pain in your neck, or your shoulders creeping up towards your ears. Informing you the minute stress is starting to hit.
Every time you notice these first signs of stress, immediately take action to relieve the stress. As well as the exercise above, I’ve noted some quick 30 second - 2 minute actions you can take to relieve stress below.
Stress Busters in 2 minutes or less
These exercises are based around the different containers where we hold stress. They can be done at your desk, on the sofa or whilst driving (though please keep your eyes open for the latter). These are simple, physical methods of releasing stress.
Note that any kind of movement when you feel stress is likely to be beneficial. A horse has a good shake. You might look a bit odd doing that in the middle of your open plan office, but you can still shake out your hands, taking a walk to the tea-room or simply stand up and stretch. These will all take your body out of its restricted state and start to relax body, and eventually, brain.
Neck and Jaw
With your first two fingers, massage your upper and lower jawlines, pausing on any areas that feel particularly tight. Press into the gap above your lower back jaw and slowly open and close your mouth. Repeat at least five times.
Clasp your fingers behind your back and stretch your arms downwards. Roll your neck whilst taking slow, deep breaths from your abdomen. Do at least two rolls each way.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath in and then open your mouth wide and “fire” your breath out. Repeat around five times.
Shoulders and chest
As you take a deep inhale, shrug your shoulders up to your ears, then as your breathe out release them down and back. Repeat 3 - 6 times. Then shake your head out.
Take a bolster/foam roller and lie over the top of it, opening up your chest and shoulders over the top. Bend your elbows and hold your hands in a prayer position over your face, elbows together. Then slowly open your arms out to the sides, keeping your hands in the same position. Here is an exceptionally crude drawing to demonstrate:
Lungs and Diaphragm
Place your fingers around your rib cage, with your thumbs at the back. Slowly breath in to the full capacity of your lungs and diaphragm, feeling them expand in all directions. Slowly breathe back out again and “wring” out the diaphragm, expending all the air inside your lungs. Repeat 3 - 10 times.
Belly and gut
Place your hands on your belly and breathe in to your belly, letting it extend out as far as you can breathe. Breathe out, using your hands to gently compress the organs in that area. Repeat until you feel relaxed.
Place your left hand on your right knee in any seated position (including at your desk). Open out your right hand and arm behind you and turn to look over your right shoulder. Hold there for a few breaths. Repeat 2-5 times on each side.
Pelvic Floor and Hips
Feel the hammock of muscles at the bottom of your core. Clench this up and in and hold before slowly releasing and imaging these relaxing and expanding. Repeat two times.
Take a super deep squat, with your bottom just off the floor and by your heels. Open your knees to the side. Stay as long as you can (consider it your new Netflix pose).
Kat’s note on bodywork
Listening and appreciating the messages and emotions my body can give me did not come easily to me. It’s still something I’m working on. My work with the horses means I have to be more present in my body, as this is what the horses are reading. They help my clients and I pinpoint areas of distress (or stress!) in our bodies, and respond encouragingly when these are released.
I have a short (ten minute or so) yoga practice every morning where I move my body in any way that feels good to it that day. I look for any signs of tension, and any related areas in my life I need to shift as a result.
It sounds a bit woo-woo, but in practice it’s really not. There’s a whole lot of science about mind-body connection out there. And tapping into the body is just one way to access the subconscious mind (hypnotherapy techniques being another technique I love to work with).
Knowing that I hold stress and tension in my shoulders means I am able to identify it, and resolve it, quickly, whenever it comes up. Working with the body gets you results, quickly.