Just relax! That’s easier said than done, right? We can tense muscles, and we can relax them, most of them on command. But some of them, when left unattended for just a second, seem determined to just hold on. Why?? In my experience there are three main reasons: Habits, stress and fascial restrictions. Let’s look at the second one:
Why does stress cause shoulder tension? Because tensing our shoulders is part of the “startle response” or “fight or flight reflex”, an ancient, hard-wired reflex rooted in the brainstem. It is meant as a defense mechanism against a sudden threat. Unfortunately our nervous system can’t tell the difference between a real, immediate threat to our life (This tiger is going to eat me any moment!) from an imagined one (If I don’t do this well, I might lose my job!). It is also distinctly unhelpful in the second situation, as along with creating shoulder tension, the reflex also impairs our ability for complex thinking. What can we do? We can remind our nervous system that (at least most of the time) there is no immediate threat to our life.
Here’s an example: You’re at work. You’ve got a deadline looming. The in-laws are coming and the house is a mess. And there’s that doctor’s bill… I bet that just reading this you can feel your shoulders creep up to your ears! But wait. You’re sitting at your computer, at your desk, in your office. People around you are going about their business. It’s warm. Your coffee is sitting right there. Nothing is trying to harm you RIGHT NOW. In this moment, you are SAFE. With practice and repetition, reminding yourself of this simple fact, RIGHT NOW I AM SAFE, you can calm down the startle response, and keep your brain functioning in a way that allows you to better solve the issues at hand.
All too commonly we have inadvertently trained ourselves to live in a constant state of fight or flight to survive. This not only feels bad to most people, but it is also harmful to our health. The constantly elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase blood pressure and blood sugar while impairing our immune system and digestive system. This puts us at risk for anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory/concentration impairments to name a few.
Here are a few more ways to calm your body and lower your cortisol:
1. Regular exercise such as kickboxing, weight lifting or a good match of tennis will give your “fight” response an outlet. Or you can let “flight” out with a run, bike ride or other aerobic endeavor.
2. Spend time with friends! Social isolation feeds the stress. Personal connections on the other hand will help your and your friends’ nervous systems calm down.
3. Mindfulness practices such as yoga, tai chi or meditation are great ways to help your system switch off the “fight or flight” response.
4. So you find meditation boring or can’t tell if you’re doing it right? You can learn to control and over time train your body’s response using biofeedback such as HeartMath’s InnerBalance app (easier) or the Muse meditation headband (more challenging).
5. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety or insomnia, a CES (Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation) device such as the Alpha-Stim might be helpful, and comes with fewer risks or side-effects than commonly used medications. These devices require a referral from a healthcare professional, so if you would like to pursue this further, you will have to get in touch with your provider.
The next time you feel stress coming on, remember to ask yourself: Is there really a “tiger”? Or can you reassure your mind that there is no imminent threat to life, and that you can take a moment to calm down and figure it out?