The hidden messages of physical tension

In my own life and in working with massage clients, I’ve noticed a pattern: When we don’t create and maintain healthy boundaries in our relationships, it seems that our bodies try to compensate by creating physical “boundaries,” which we then experience as tension, constriction, or illness.

Here are just a few examples:

  • We say yes to plans that we don’t want to do, and then we get sick and can’t go.
  • We don’t speak our truth, we agree to things we don’t actually agree with, say things we don’t mean, and we lose our voice or feel tension in our neck and jaw.
  • We feel like we have to do everything ourselves or it won’t get done, so we take on other people’s stuff and our back starts to hurt.
  • We repeatedly ignore our intuition and walk into situations we know aren’t good for us, and our knees and feet start acting up.

Our bodies are wonderfully unique, so the ways in which your body compensates could be quite different from this list, but the basic concept remains: We need healthy boundaries to exist in this world, and if we’re not setting them in our relationships, our bodies will pick up the slack.

This might sound bizarre, but you are likely familiar with a more extreme example of this: trauma. Whether it be in your own life or someone you know, it’s all too easy to see the link between a traumatic boundary violation and the body’s ability to remember and “record” this violation in the form of tension, illness, hypersensitivity to touch, and so forth.

While this is a massive topic, too wide ranging to completely cover here, let’s talk about a couple ways to explore this concept in your own life and in your own body.

Find the tension

For starters, get in touch with where in your body you feel tension or discomfort. Quite often, we’re so used to feeling, say, constriction in our jaw or a dull ache in our knees that we don’t even notice it anymore.

Take some time to sit, stand, or lay down, and do a body scan, slowly moving your awareness from your head to your toes, sensing any tension or pain. If this feels difficult, try tensing each part of your body individually, and notice what it feels like when you release this tension. Can you sense that your body isn’t fully releasing in any areas?

To see what hidden tension feels like, try this simple exercise. If you spend a good amount of time sitting (like most of us do these days), you might be surprised by what you find in this pose. Lay on the floor, either on carpet or some other cushioning, like a yoga mat. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, heels about a foot away from your butt. An easy way to measure this is to start with your feet directly below your knees, then scooch them another 3-4″ away from your hips.

Rest your hands on your belly or down by your sides, palms facing down (don’t bring your arms above your head or up by your shoulders as this changes the stretch). Take some time to get in touch with your breathing, slowing down the inhales and exhales for at least ten rounds of breath.

Now, shift your awareness to your hips. Do you notice any tension there, any sense that something is holding on to keep your legs locked in position?

Then, try this: move your awareness to your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs), noticing the length from the backs of your knees all the way to your glutes. If you imagine letting this length elongate or soften, like a wet noodle, do you feel any resistance, maybe tension kicking in to keep your knees from falling open or collapsing inward?

Play with this for a few more rounds of breath, and when you’re ready to come out, roll onto your side and rest in fetal position for a few breaths before slowly moving up to a seated position.

Bonus: In doing this exercise, you also gave your psoas muscle a chance to release.

Play with symbolism

Once you’ve located at least one area of tension, focus your awareness there. For example, if your shoulders are tense, you might choose to close your eyes and bring your attention to your shoulders. What does tension feel like in this area–how would you describe it? Do any phrases or images come to mind, even if they don’t make sense?

Start to play with any words or phrases, any images that arise in a more figurative way. For example, if you described your shoulder tension as “shrugging,” perhaps as you turn it over in your mind, you associate this with shrugging in indecision, which then leads you to the awareness that you’ve become disconnected from what you want, think, and feel because you’re overly focused on what other people want, think and feel.

You see yourself in a situation where someone is asking you to do something, and while you don’t feel excited about it you find yourself shrugging and agreeing: “Sure, why not?”

This leads you to the realization that you don’t feel like you have a right to assert your own wants and needs, that it’s rude or selfish to do so, and you start to see how every denial of your own experience creates a little more stress, a little more tension in your shoulders until you can’t remember what it felt like to have shoulders that weren’t creeping up towards your ears, aching for a massage.

Help a body out

Of course, finding the tension and uncovering the emotional and energetic layers is just the beginning. To release that tension, you’ll need to combine physical efforts, such as bodywork and stretching, with creating boundaries in healthier ways so your body doesn’t have to do that for you.

If you continue to rely on your body to create relationship boundaries, tension will persist, regardless of how many massages or yoga classes you’ve had this month. To deepen the healing, you might try reading books about boundary setting, codependence, and healthy communication. This is a great place to start.

But like any change, you have to actually practice it and live it, not just read and think about it. Therapy is an excellent tool for unlearning unhelpful boundary patterns and learning new ways of relating to yourself and others.

If you notice that trying to set boundaries feels uncomfortable–perhaps you feel guilty or selfish when you say no–therapy can help you uncover the “rules” you learned, likely as a child, that it feels like you’re violating by setting healthy boundaries. It can help you rewrite your life rules on your own terms in a way that allows you the space to express yourself authentically.

And the more space you create in your life through healthy boundaries, the more spaciousness you will feel in your body. It’s a win-win.

Are you missing important movement vitamins?

I recently read–and loved the crap out of–a book called Movement Matters by biomechanist Katy Bowman. When you’re done with this post, I highly recommend:

  1. Checking out her books.
  2. Checking out her blog and her podcast. (Bonus: Listening to the podcast while you move.)
  3. Checking out her videos. I bought Nutritious Movement for a Healthy Pelvis and it’s fab-u-lous.

But first, let’s talk about movement vitamins, a phrase I picked up from Bowman. Most of us are familiar with the idea of eating a variety of foods as a way to increase our chances of getting the diversity of macronutrients and the vitamins and minerals we need. If you only eat bananas, your body would be very sad. And by “sad” I mean “totally deficient in a whole bunch of super important nutrients that support life.”

In the same way, it’s possible to have a movement diet that is higher or lower on the diversity scale. Many of us think about movement mainly in the context of exercise (and possibly in the context of feeling bad that we’re not getting enough). So, as long as we’re hitting the gym a few times a week for an hour, or whatever our personal goal is, we can check movement off our list.

Bowman brings up two ideas that turn this thinking on its head. One, if you look at how much “couch potatoes” move versus how much regular exercisers move as a percentage of total time in a week, the numbers aren’t that different. Even if you’re working out an hour every single day, that’s still only 4% of your week spent moving.

And two, when we do work out we often stick to the same things. For me, that’s usually yoga and hiking. For you it might be biking. Or swimming. Or treadmilling. The point is, when we engage in pretty predictable movements, we’re moving pretty predictable parts of our body in pretty predictable ways, and this can lead to areas of our body that are rarely, if ever, moved.

Movement is a requirement for health, even down to the cellular level, so if, for example, you wear shoes that allow for very little foot movement, you now have areas of your foot–specific joints, for example, of which your foot has many–that pretty much never move. Same is true even if you’re walking around barefoot but you’re always walking on, say, asphalt or flat trails.

The point is, just like we can’t survive on a diet of bananas, our bodies need a diversity of movement, and all of the parts of our body, not just the predictable chunks, like our abs or our biceps, need a wide range of movement.

Now, when I learned this my first reaction was, well, hellwhat’s the point of exercising then? After my temper tantrum had run its course, though, I realized that there are many reasons to continue exercising (it feels great, I can do it with people I love and build community while I move, etc), and just as importantly, getting more movement vitamins doesn’t mean not exercising. It simply means looking at my entire day as an opportunity to move, not just the hour I spend in yoga class.

For example, I can squat while I read a blog post instead of sitting at my desk, I can do a silly walk around my apartment while I brush my teeth, I can climb a tree while I’m out hiking, I can hang from the monkey bars at the park–in short, I can consciously inject a variety of movements into my daily routine, in the same way that I consciously choose to eat more foods besides bananas.

I want to leave you with two takeaways:

    1. A blog post from Bowman, “13 Ways to Make Your Walk More Nutritious” that will help you up your movement diversity in simple ways.
    2. A super short (less than two minutes) video from Tom Myers, one of my bodywork idols, about the importance of varied movement: