Stretch Your Lungs
One of the most common symptoms of stress, among countless symptoms, is muscle tension. Many of us carry around this tension in our muscles for most of our lives, which is often caused by challenging emotional experiences and traumas. We pass it off as “old age” or as normal, but this tension is not meant to be stored in our body. In fact, what this tension ends up doing when it gets trapped in our muscles is bogging down our nervous system and recapitulating the experience and trauma over and over inside our body. Because muscle tension can often lead to more chronic conditions, let’s explore how stress and tension is captured in our muscles and what we can do to release it so that we can achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
How Stress and Tension Get Trapped In Our Muscles
Our body is constantly perceiving the environment, both within itself and outside of itself, through our senses (smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing, and intuition). When our nervous system picks up on this information we either perceive it as a threat, or not. Although, not everyone perceives a situation the same way. For example, if you’re flying in an airplane and hit turbulence you may not worry too much about it, but the person next to you who fears flying may start to sweat! It’s not the situation that’s stressful, it’s how we perceive the situation.
There are six major categories of stress, all of which could be good or bad. These include physical, chemical, electromagnetic, psychic/mental, nutritional and thermal stress. An example of “good” physical stress would be adequate exercise and stretching. A “bad” physical stress would be muscle tension, which could have been caused by any number of the six stressors. Regardless of the type of stress we are perceiving, everyone’s nervous system will basically respond the same way. That is, if you perceive the stress to be a “good stress” you’ll feel more relaxed within, but if you perceive it as a “bad stress” you will feel like fighting, running, or freezing. You definitely won't feel relaxed. So, how does this affect our muscles and cause tension? It helps to understand how the autonomic nervous system works a bit.
Your nervous system has two main branches, the somatic (what we control) and the autonomic (what we typically don’t control). The autonomic branch of the nervous system is further divided into two branches, the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch. When we perceive a stress as a “good stress,” we signal the calming parasympathetic branch. When the parasympathetic branch responds to your “good stress” several physiological responses will happen within your body such as…
Your saliva is increased
Digestive enzymes are released
Your heart rate drops
The bronchial tubes in your lungs constrict
Your muscles relax
The pupils in your eyes constrict
Your urinary output increases
You are more receptive to the world around you
All of these changes are designed to maintain long-term health and wellbeing, improve digestion, conserve energy, and maintain a healthy balance in your body’s systems, including your hormonal system.
Conversely, when we perceive as stress as “bad stress,” or our bodies are not in a state of balance and we feel agitated, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, we experience the responses of the triggered sympathetic branch, known widely as the “fight or flight” system. When we experience this “bad stress” you may notice that…
Your heart rate increases
The bronchial tubes in your lungs dilate
Your pupils dilate
Your muscles contract
Your saliva production is reduced
Your stomach stops many of the functions of digestion
More glycogen is converted to glucose
Your muscles contract causing vasoconstriction of your blood vessels
You become less receptive to the world around you
As you can imagine, all of these changes are designed to make you more ready to fight or run. Although vital to your health, systems such as digestion and immunity become non-essential and are given much lower priority, while more energy and blood is made available to your muscles, which causes them to become tense, and your heart rate increases, preparing you to run for your life! You’ll notice many of these changes in response to lower level stressors too like a stressful job or relationship, eating a poor diet, and long periods of inactivity. The problem is that we don’t end up running or fighting and using this stress-energy therefore in gets trapped in our body.
You may remember from science class that everything in our universe is energy, and stress is no exception. Our body pushes and moves stress-energy away from vital organs and into our more non-vital muscles because it inherently knows that you can survive without your muscles and limbs, but you cannot live without your vital organs. If we are triggered often, this tension increases and it begins to wear down our nervous system. Again, this can cause countless problems and symptoms throughout our whole body!
How We Can Overcome Stress and Release Muscle Tension
Physical and mental rest is the counterpart to the busy and exhausting activity of our nervous system. Linda Hartley explains how our nervous system is affected by work and rest eloquently in her book, Wisdom of The Body Moving.
“During normal activity, the nerves themselves have a time of rest, known as the ‘refactory period,’ between the conduction of one nerve impulse and the next down any particular axon. But because of the extreme stresses and complexities of our modern society, characterized by a constant pressure to be ‘doing.’ we may not allow ourselves to go into these periods of rest fully. An agitated and anxious mind will not enable full rest and recovery, so that stress perpetuates stress, instead of creative activity flowing naturally out of quiet rest.”
What we can gather here is that many of us are experiencing constant stress all day long, which is triggering our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system and we can’t turn it off! Stress-energy is constantly being shuttled out to our muscles, causing them to become tense, and we’re even taking this tension to bed with us at night where it impedes on our much need rest. The stress is keeping us up, and it cycles through our muscles waiting to be released. Then the rollercoaster begins. You can’t sleep, you toss-and-turn, and by morning you need a coffee, maybe two. You then start your day with a fairly low battery, filled with stress-energy and the rest is of the story is just too stressful to even talk about it!
Now, it never fails that whenever we get a little worked up or things get a little crazy, someone is there to say “take a deep breath.” For centuries, ancient masters have come to learn that physiologically, when we do take a deep breath, something magical happens to our state of being. We relax! This happens because taking a deep breath physically stimulates the calming parasympathetic (rest and digest) branch within our body and it is rooted deeply at the bottom of your lungs, where only a deep breath can reach. The fight-or-flight system is connected to the upper lungs which is why you’ll notice that anytime you are stressed begin taking shorter and more shallower chest breaths. By taking a deep breath and stretching your lungs, you can physically control when you turn off the noise!
There are many techniques that you could do to reduce stress and release muscle tension, and many of them work. More chronic stress may require expensive techniques such as physical therapy, massage and trigger point therapy. Less expensive techniques are perhaps classes of relaxed yoga and tai chi forms. Even less expensive techniques might be stretching or taking a stroll through nature. However, regardless of the technique used, the least expensive way to reduce stress is to take a deep breath. All of the prior techniques require deep breathing to be effective because breath allows us to relax, flow and heal. It opens up our potential for growth and resilience. Through the practice of breath we are able to reduce stress, release tension, and heal ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. Our breath is the cornerstone to living a healthy life.
100 Day Practice
There is an ancient Chinese saying, One hundred days to build the foundation, ten months to produce the embryo and three years to baby-sit. This is the process of the gradual growth of our expanding consciousness, or awareness. The ancient Chinese understood the power of breath and created techniques for awareness and consciousness breathing. Any time you practice deep breathing you’ll benefit. But as a way to release tension in your body, practice this very simple breathing technique for 100 days.
Stand or sit up tall in a relaxed position. Breath in through your nose slowly. Fill up your belly, then your ribcage, and up through your chest. Pause patiently for one second then release your breath slowly through your nostrils. Pause patiently again, then repeat. You can do this anywhere, anytime, it doesn't matter. Deep breathing will always work to relax your mind and your body. If the lungs get stretched, the process happens. Finding a quiet place helps and there are ways to enhance the experience. But the truth remains that no matter where you are, what has happened, what’s going on, or what will be, you will always feel better and find peace in all of it when you stretch your lungs.
By Michael Halatyn, HHP