The build-up and dissipation of chronic stress and tension
By Renata Taylor-Byrne, Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor
12th May 2021
The fact that most people are totally unaware of just how tense their body is does not in any way protect them from the negative effects of ongoing stress, strain and physical and mental tension.
There is a solution to this situation, and I want to share it with you.
Automatic bodily tensing responses
Because of the way our bodies have evolved and developed, if you’re faced with challenging situations or feel under attack in a scary situation, your body has an effective strategy for dealing with it. We become physically highly alert, attentive, focussed and ready to deal with the new situation. We get rid of other things on our minds and focus on this specific problem, fully concentrating!
Then when we’ve dealt with the challenge, we relax – panic over! Our bodies go from ‘full alert’ to a more relaxed response. Our nervous system changes from “fight or flight” mode, to the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. We chill out, relax and move on to the next situation.
This is how we’ve developed, and evolved as human beings, and it works well when we have the time and space to recover from daily challenges. We finish work, go home and get a decent night’s sleep so we can wake up the following day with our batteries fully recharged.
The importance of switching off the fight-or-flight response
But – and this is a big but – if we don’t get enough quality recovery time in-between challenging situations – if there are fewer and fewer recovery spaces in-between mental and physical challenges, what happens is that there is a slow, unrelenting build-up of tension in our bodies.
And this tension can cause quite a few problems: people can start to have difficulty getting to sleep at night, lying awake for hours, experiencing insomnia. Digestion problems can happen, the heart can be affected, panic attacks can occur, anxiety levels can increase. The immune system becomes weakened, making people more susceptible to infections and viruses. People can start to dread situations that in the past they would have had no problem handling.
Unless we realise what is happening – our bodies, specifically our nervous system, is protesting against tension overload – then our physical and mental health can suffer, and our peace of mind will be affected. People can be full of tension when they are lying on the beach.
How to manage your tension, stress and strain
How can you handle this stress build up in your body? You could take the route of experimenting with a less tense, more relaxed way of life and specifically learn ‘scientific relaxation’. Dr Edmund Jacobson, based in Chicago, spent 70 years of his professional life researching how tension affects the body. He created a relaxation technique called “progressive muscle relaxation”, where you practise for 10 to 15 minutes a day, to slowly teach yourself what tension in your muscles feels like.
You slowly learn to feel and notice the different ways that you can be tensing up your muscles, without realising. Then you learn to relax your body quickly. As a result, you develop a feeling of physical and mental control over your body. And the benefits to your body are: improved sleep, reduced anxiety, improved digestion, and phobias disappear. Insomnia is eliminated, and also it’s a great stress reducer for public performance, exams, and it strengthens the immune system and reduces the experience of pain.
The need for alcohol, or other stimulants, which are a short cut to relaxation (but which have a sleep–destroying price tag as well as the financial cost) aren’t needed in the same way. Once you know how to relax, the need for artificial relaxants is greatly reduced.
There are some amazing case studies of clients using and benefitting from this technique, and I describe them in my book: “Relax Your Way to a Better Life: Using Dr Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique for physical and mental health”).
Problems with orthodox medical solutions
Or you could try a different approach, and try orthodox medicine. But bear in mind that this has its drawbacks: In The Times newspaper of Monday, March 29th (page 19) there was an article with the headline: “Alarm over growing use of drugs to treat insomnia and anxiety”. Apparently patients are being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs to cure insomnia, and these prescriptions have doubled from 1.6 million, to 3.5 million in the ten years up to 2018. Side effects? “Weight gain, intense sleepiness, increased risk of diabetes and blurred vision”. And if the drug is stopped incorrectly, the article states, it can “Induce severe symptoms, including psychotic episodes”.
Alternative and complementary medicine solutions are best
Learning the skill of proper relaxation, as in Dr Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique, benefits the body enormously, and will enhance the quality of your life for many years. And the side effects? A greater sense of connection with your body, an increased confidence in your ability to calm , soothe and relax yourself after stressful experiences, and if you have children, they will greatly benefit from your lack of tension and enhanced well-being, without realising it: If you’re relaxed – they’ll be relaxed!
What did you think of this presentation? Have you tried out the relaxation system described? Any feedback would be very helpful for readers of this blog post.
Renata Taylor-Byrne, Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor
Author of, Relax Your Way to a Better Life!