The Freedom of Tension: Access your Nervous System!

Do you sometimes listen to the stress inside of you, when you reach high up on a shelf and suddenly notice that your breathing has stopped and your shoulders are all hard and frozen? This is just one kind of the many different muscle tensions and interrupted breath cycles we can experience in daily life. Shallow and interrupted breathing is caused by and causes stress and stored muscle tensions. Neuroscientifc studies state that proper breathing, movement and rhythmic social activities (basketball, throwing a frisbee forth and back, etc.) can break these tension patterns (van der Kolk, 2014): “We can access the Autonomous Nervous System through breath, movement, or touch.”

In this post I will argue how important it is to become aware and master your tensions, and I will suggest a few exercises to reduce stored muscle tension with the help of breathing and movement.

Health scientists agree that unrecognized tension leads to shallow breathing, which is a contributing cause to cardiovascular diseases, because it increases our heart rate and imbalances our Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV measures the autonomous nervous system’s connection between heart rate and breathing. Our heart rate raises on inhale, which is a sympathethic nervous system reaction, and it lowers on exhale: This is a parasympathethic nervous system reaction. SNS and PSNS are to each other like accelerator and brakes of a car.

But if we tense up and interupt our breathing either momentarily or, much worse, permanently due to deeply seated visceral tension and trauma, then the heart rate fluctuations connected to the parasympathic and sympathetic breath patterns become instable, and our autonmous nervous and cardiovascular systems undergo severe stress. In addition, shallow breathing and unconsciously stored tensions trigger fight or flight reactions and flood our blood circuits with stress hormones.  The resulting mental and muscle tensions can render us immobilized, leading to traumatic collapses.

However, we can learn to move through tensions, literally to breathe and to move through tense areas of our bodies. Imagine a wild wolf standing in front of you, scaring you until the point, where you freeze and loose control over your body. This is what daily stress and tensions cause to our systems on a permanent basis, with the difference that we don’t notice it, because daily stress is permanent and not as acute as a survival situation in the wilderness. Stored muscle tensions require that we breathe, move, twist, turn, pivot, shake, walk and jump through them. By simply tensing up the body while moving, we simulate and exaggerate the existing state of tension. We take back control of our tension. Now, we can focus patiently on how to find our comfort zone under this self-imposed tension, until the breath flows unhindered and the mind releases.

The more we consciously recognize our tensions and retake control of them, the better we can avoid unwanted detrimental health effects. Here are a few simple exercises to communicate with our autonomous nervous system, using breath, tension and movement:

  1. Start by bending over and picking up something from the floor, noticing at which point your breathing restricts and stops. Stop in this position for a while and continue breathing. Notice where your breath is hindered and labored, and where it starts to expand and flow freely. Bend down in different ways and find out at which point your breathing restricts. Stop there and take your time to become aware of how certain everyday positions and actions make you stop breathing. Then restart breathing in the same bent over position until you feel that the stress leaves your body.
  2. Raise your arms, tense your body and walk around a room or a yard, noticing how it feels to tense up the muscles of your legs, torso, arms, neck on purpose. Step over and around chairs, tables, doors, keep the arms raised and find a way to continue breathing freely with a relaxed mind in spite of the bodily tension. Play with different degrees of tension (light/medium/strong) and body areas (up/down/left/right/across-diagonal/front/back). Accept the initial feeling of strain, breathlessness and stress, when tensing up and patiently work towards a tensed body, but free mind and breathing.
  3. Tense your whole body, continue breathing and do a few pushups, squats, situps. Slowly raise your breath-comfort, i.e. the comfort with which you can continue breathing when under pressure and the state in which your mind is relaxed, although your body is tense. Then reduce the tension with which you do these exercises.
  4. Shadow fight several imaginary opponents with a tense and restricted body. Notice how tension restricts your movement and breathing, but keep on moving around anyways. Get used to the feeling of tension and make it an ally instead of a rival, and over time you will become comfortable to move under tension and let go of tension at will. You could also use this concept playing table tennis, volley ball, or running/walking, etc.
  5. Train with fellow practitioners who are trying to push and grab you and you have to maneuver while tense. Make the tension yours, own it and start enjoying it. This way the tension becomes freedom. You get used to how tension feels, you imitate the effects of stress, you teach your nervous system how to move with tension, you become a master of your own freedom instead of a slave of somebody else’s tension. Add working with higher, lower, even subtle degrees and areas of tension. Once you get used to this work, you will become highly sensitive to daily tensions and stored stress as well, learning how to keep moving instead of freezing.

See another good post on this topic by Sharon Friedman,

For further reading I recommend Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (Viking, 2014).