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home : blogs_old : health in motion April 28, 2016

Health in Motion
By Cheryl Van Demark, PT
Cheryl Van Demark is a registered Yoga teacher, Yoga therapist and physical therapist with a Masterís degree in physical education and exercise science. She has enjoyed over 25 years of helping individuals optimize alignment, restore movement, build strength and cultivate a balance in body mind and spirit to pursue joyful living.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How To Tame Your Tension

Cheryl Van Demark, PT

This photo illustrates how to create a comfortable, supportive rest position to relax the breath by inviting it into the lower belly.

Hello Chino Valley!

In my first two blogs, I addressed heart health and the power of thought in creating our feelings of stress. While our stress response is necessary to alert us to escape from danger, we want to activate it only in the event of actual emergencies. Our stress response becomes problematic when it runs as a default program rather than one that is activated for emergency use only. Chronic over-activation of our stress response increases our risk of hypertension, heart disease, type 2 Diabetes and autoimmune complaints and contributes to anxiety. Given that many of us are moving through life with our stress response in a continual state of activation, my next few blogs will address how to tame our tension.

The first "how to" tame your tension is to start noticing the connection between thoughts, breath patterns and tension levels. When your stress button gets pushed by stress charged thoughts or actual events, your heart immediately beats faster; your breath becomes more rapid and is generated more in the upper part of our rib cage via action of your neck and chest muscles. Additionally, your throat gets tight, your mouth gets dry, your neck gets tense, your fists clench and our gut tightens up. All this describes the baseline fight or flight aspects of your stress response. Feel familiar? Not a very comfortable combination of muscle actions. For some of us, a freeze occurs instead of fight or flight.

Add to this fight, flight or freeze your unique body language of expression in how you "wear" stress with your muscular system. Do your get your back up, get your shorts in a knot, scrunch up your shoulders or clench your teeth? Are you in the habit of swallowing what you would like to say, shrinking or expanding your size and tone of voice in an angry or intimidating fashion? Do freeze up by holding your breath, bracing and losing your voice? As a physical therapist and yoga teacher, I help people identify these common responses. They become so habitual, we stop feeling them, but they create significant constraints to our freedom of breath and consequently to the flow of energy through the body. Tense muscles also pull on bones, which shift our spinal alignment, constrain joint movement and perpetuate many common back and neck pain complaints.

What to do to start taming your tension? Most of us can remember three things.

1. Become an astute observer of your thoughts as they are the generators of your feelings.

Much of our stress is experienced either as instant replay of a past event or as an anticipated rehearsal of what has not yet occurred.

2. Start noticing what you are doing with your facial expression, the set of your jaw and your hands and your feet.

Soften anything that is clenching. Your brain receives a tremendous amount of sensory input from these areas, so relaxing here has a powerful effect.

3. Try a long, slow sssshhhhh... sound as you breathe out. It is best to actually make the sound, but it can be done mentally. A long exhale is a natural expression of releasing pressure and sends a strong message to the central nervous system to slow the heart and the breath because the stress threat (real or created by thoughts) has passed. See the photo above showing how to create a comfortable rest position to relax the breath by inviting it into the lower belly.

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