Tense, rigid shoulders, a gritted jaw and furrowed brow have become part of our everyday reality. Triggered by an innate stress response – ‘fight or flight mode’ – our body’s muscles reflexively tighten when we feel under attack, and the rest of our body goes into survival mode.
This evolutionary stress response was designed to protect us from life-or-death danger. However, modern-day stresses, such as being late for work or having an argument with a friend, pose an emotional ‘threat’ that our bodies can’t distinguish. They react just as if a lion were chasing us, suddenly releasing hormones like cortisol that prep the body for dealing with danger, resulting in a boost in blood pressure, heart and breath rate, as well as tensing muscles to rally the body for attack.
The result? “Our bodies are tenser than ever,” says Fraser Smythe, a Performance Coach at Twenty Two Training. So, although 9.9 times out of 10 we aren’t being physically attacked like our cavewomen counterparts, this state of perpetual panic-mode can trigger a host of tension-related problems, affecting everything from our health to our complexions.
Here Grazia explores what to watch out for and how to tackle the pressure, head-on...
Three in four people admit to being so stressed they struggle to cope with day-to-day life. But as well as living in frenetic, hyper-connected societies, we’re also carrying around emotional baggage that contributes to how we react. “There’s never a separation between body and mind,” says Mimi Kuo-Deemer, a yoga teacher at Triyoga. “Any tension in the body is instigated – and exacerbated – by our mental state.”
Our bodies have evolved to remember how we reacted to attacks in the past and with any subsequent whiff of threat, whether emotional or physical, they return to that place. So addressing underlying traumas, whether that’s something common, such as a bad break-up, or more severe, like domestic abuse, is vital to help slowly relieve both the physical and mental tension.
The spread effect
Wellness and skin expert Marie Reynolds explains that tension also emanates from the soft connective tissue just beneath the skin, called fascia. “You might think about tension residing in the neck and shoulders, but dehydrated fascia anywhere in the system can cause lung and gut tension, leading to shallow breathing and issues like irritable bowel syndrome.”
The whole body is mapped with fascia, so when one area is tense, it will likely also affect another – for example, tense jaw joints are directly linked to lower back pain. “Stress, poor posture, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol, difficult emotions and excessive exercise can all cause fascia dehydration,” says Marie. And the more dehydrated your fascia, the more likely it is you’ll be in a state of tension.
The shoulder hunch
The age-old phrase ‘the weight of the world on your shoulders’ couldn’t be more apt. “The most common area of tension is the back of the neck and shoulders,” says Fraser. “There’s a motor nerve attached to these muscles that is linked to breathing. When we get stressed and start shallow breathing, it’s this area that shows the first physical signs we’re holding tension.” Shoulders become taut and lift upwards towards the neck or round forward and hunch, causing a whole lot of knots in there.
The tension triangle
In fact, the shoulders are part of a wider area, dubbed “the tension triangle”, from shoulders to forehead, which is said to react more dramatically to mental stress. Think a clenched jaw, rigid neck and those two vertical ‘eleven’ lines between your brows that come about uninvited, often accompanied by a persistent headache.
“I also see a lot of tension around the eye sockets, because we strain our eyes looking at our phones all the time,” says A-list facialist Su-Man. “That also causes us to hunch over, which makes the neck and jaw tight too. The whole body ends up stiff.” Even our skin suffers: “Every feeling manifests on our skin and, if they’re negative emotions, skin will look angry or dull.” Her facials, from around Dhs1,000 are inspired by shiatsu and make use of acupressure points to help release tension, encourage the flow of chi, boost circulation and lymphatic drainage, as well as manipulating the muscles for a lifting and relaxing effect.
THE LOOSEN-UP LIST
1. Bust brow tension
Don’t let emotion fester along the eyebrow line because eventually it’ll become visible as the ‘eleven’ lines between the brows. Try Su-Man’s tip: “Take your first three fingers and place on top of both eyebrows, hold, then firmly circle them, six times one way then six the other.” You tick off three of the face’s pressure points this way and it’s a feel-good one to do after a long day at work.
2. Practise slow yoga
Connect to the body by practising a form of yoga that isn’t too dynamic. “It should have an intentional quality, like focusing on deeper breath. I’m a fan of vinyasa yoga because it’s fluid and our bodies are 70 per cent water, so it helps us find our balance,” says Mimi Kuo-Deemer. The Vinyasa or Yin classes at Yoga House, Dhs90, are excellent but, at home, try a twist like Marichi’s pose.
Sit with your legs out straight in front of you, then bend your right leg and cross it over your left, pressing your right foot into the floor. Twist your upper body to the right and anchor your left elbow on the outside of your right knee. Breathing deeply, lengthen the spine on each inhalation and gently twist more on each exhalation. Hold for a minute, then repeat on the other side.
3. Write a list of your tension triggers
“When we’re overthinking things, we just keep it in our heads and it feels like spinning plates,” says Marie, “which just makes us overwhelmed. You have to notice what’s causing the tension.” Write a list of these triggers, followed by steps on how to control them. You’ll be surprised how helpful it is having a logical list to refer to.
4. Release your jaw
Help ease off a day’s clenching with a simple exercise while cleansing your face: “Open your mouth and, in front of your ears, there is an indentation. Press it, hold for six seconds, and repeat three times. Next, make a scissor shape with your index and middle fingers and hook on to your jawline, firmly sweeping from the chin back towards the hairline, repeating six times,’ recommends Su-Man. Use a gel-based cleanser for extra slip, such as Su-Man Purifying Cleansing Gel Oil, Dhs184.
5. Roll it out
You’ll never regret buying a foam roller – they’re particularly good for regular exercisers. “Roll out the glutes; these are the muscles you sit on and go a third of the way up your back. Make sure you do it slowly,” says Fraser, who suggests rolling out any other restricted parts of the body next.
6. And breathe...
Connect with your breath as much as you can for a powerful way to loosen tension. Mimi recommends the abdominal breath: place both hands on the lower abdomen, stacked on top of each other, and breathe down into the area. “Imagine the calm waters of the sea, not wild waves but relaxing, like the Mediterranean,”she says. Abdominal breathing helps to encourage rest and supports the digestive system – so the opposite to fight-or-flight mode.
7. Go green
“On your lunch hour, find a green space and get your feet on the earth,” says Marie. “Earthing is so important and, while a lot of people dismiss it as a new-age hippy thing, it helps us absorb negative ions, which lower blood pressure and slow breathing.”
8. Loosen tight shoulders
On an inhalation, try lifting your shoulders up towards your ears, then exhale and let them fall, drawing your shoulder blades towards each other and downwards on the return. An easy and effective tension-buster to do at your desk.