Tuning Tension: Letting it Go

A month ago I wrote an article for Tony Gentlicore where I mapped out ways in which you can elicit reflexive increases in muscular tension by simply focusing on what you do at three places in your body.

You can read it in full HERE.

This article is the other side of the coin; how to reflexively tune down tension and elicit decreases in muscular tension. It is not coincidence that it by focusing on what you do at the same three places in your body will allow this.

So you may ask; why exactly should you take time to focus on decreasing muscle tension?

Well, if you have been on this earth long enough to endure any level of challenge you have likely experienced unwelcome muscle tension that would simply not let go when you wanted. So one major reason you would want to reduce muscle tension is for comfort.

A second reason is flexibility. There are a variety of blocks to having the full freedom of movement you may want, and at times undesirable muscular tension is contributing.

A third is recovery. For those of us that are pursuing any level of athletic endeavor; whether it is strength, endurance or that of a more sports specific activity, we need to work hard at the craft and recover in between in order to continually move forward. The engine needs to turn off and park in the garage if it is going to drive hard or long.

Another way to look at it; in between moments of full effort, you need moments of full relaxation. A concise article about nuances of recovery can be found HERE.

Barring musculoskeletal conditions, or systemic medical issues, there are some simple ways that you can elicit reflexive muscular relaxation, and it comes down to three things:

1. What you do with your breath.
2. What you do with your hands.
3. What you do with your face.

For reasons that will be abundantly clear, there is no better place to begin than looking at…

WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR BREATH

Probably the best way to understand how your breath can have such a powerful effect on body wide muscular tension is to take good look at the autonomic nervous system. This is the automated response that works behind the scenes adjusting and synchronizing your bodily reactions to the demands of your external and internal environments.

It has two general parts:

1. The sympathetic nervous system (your fight, flight or freeze response)
2. The parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest response)

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for eliciting an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, skeletal muscle blood flow and with that muscular tension. Blood is shunted away from your organs and to the muscles of your limbs to allow you to either fight a threat, or run for your life. The sympathetic nervous system is what prepares you for immediate survival, not taking a snooze after a big meal.

On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for eliciting the exact opposite reaction of decreasing your heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and skeletal muscle blood flow and muscular tension. Blood is shunted away from the muscular system, and back to the organs to allow you to rest, digest and recover after and between moments of challenge.

Largely, these responses are automatic, and thankfully so. If and when emergencies happen you need to simply react, not think to react (those of you that analyze to paralysis know how useless this when you are trying to avoid rolling an ankle). Even in seemingly simple daily activities these two systems are constantly working together to up or down regulate our bodily responses depending on actual or perceived demands.

The key word to soak up from that last sentence is perceived.

You see, our bodies and the brains that inhabit them still think we are cavemen and women. You are programmed to survive, above all else (1). What this means is that your brain does not know the difference between the stresses of bad traffic, a bad boss, a bad person giving you a bad feeling, or you trying to pump out a few more bad reps of that last bad set. It is all the same, and depending on how bad it is perceived will dictate the response (2).

When you are in a sympathetic state your body will quite often hold a high level of muscular tension. Yes, when you are working hard, whether it is lifting a heavy weight or running for your life, this tension is a very useful thing. But there are all the other times in between these moments that you need to simply let it go.

Again, think comfort, flexibility and recovery.

So where does your breath fit in all of this?

Well, although these synchronized bodily responses are automatic and seemingly out of your control, there is one of these systems that you can consciously override; your respiration. Learning to control your breath will allow you to control how relaxed you either are, or are not.

How?

Two ways:

1. The rate and depth that you respire.
2. Whether you emphasize inhaling or exhaling.

If you breathe faster, your heart will race faster, and with that your blood pressure, muscular tension and perfusion increase as well. At the same time, the opposite is observed; if you slow your breathing down, your heart rate will decrease, your blood pressure will decrease, and muscular tension and blood flow will all go down.

So if you want to relax, slow your breath down.

How much should you slow it? Probably as much as possible.

Consider what your ideal resting respiration rate should be. Medical journals list the average normal resting respiration rate as 12-20 breaths per minute, with more than 20 breaths per minute considered a distressed state. However, just like body mass index, what is normal is not necessarily ideal. Your ideal resting respiratory rate is more like 6-8 breaths per minute.

That means one breath every 8 to 10 seconds.

If that seems like a stretch to you, then you probably have a tendency to hyperventilate, even though you may not realize it. If you tend to have issues with chronic muscle tension, simply beginning to be aware of your resting breathing rate may give some insight as to why.

Now it is not just the rate that seems important, but also which phase of respiration you emphasize. It has been shown that when you inhale, your heart rate increases, and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down.

What seems to be crucial for triggering a relaxation response is having a pause after exhalation. By pause, I mean a prolonged pause, at minimum 10 seconds (3). If you are in a tense, sympathetic state these 10 seconds may seem like an eternity and it is often better to start with pausing for 3, then 5, then 8 and finally 10 seconds. If you are new to this level of breath awareness, the process of attaining a 10 second pause may not happen on your first try. For some, learning to pause after exhalation can trigger some anxiety, and you may need to give yourself several days to weeks to get used to exhaling fully and pausing.

So, if you want to relax yourself, whether it is you as a whole, an isolated part, or yourself in a particular position or pose the rule is simple; exhale fully and pause.

WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR HANDS

This is really quite simple; the tension that you hold at your hands reverberates through your whole being. For a more involved explanation, simply read the article the article I wrote about increasing muscular tension (click HERE).

So, if you want your body to relax more than it is, be sure to relax your hands.

Shake them out if necessary, it would not be that weird for you to do something like that.

WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR FACE

Just like how what you do at your hands reverberates through your entire body, what you do at your face does as well. As to what you should focus on, it can be broken down into three separate places or concepts:

1. What you do with your eyes.
2. What you do with your jaw.
3. What you do with your facial expression as a whole.

EYES

The eyes have been called the windows to the soul, and science has shown that this is not far off (4). Directly connected to our brains, the function of our eyes are directly effected by whether we are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state. A simplified explanation is that when we are in a sympathetic/stressed state our eyes have a limited ability to shift focus between objects that are either near or far away (known as visual accommodation). We are essentially in a state of tunnel vision, focused on surviving whatever challenge is in front of us. However, when we are in a relaxed, parasympathetic state our ability to shift our visual focus is much improved (5).

So, much like the effects of respiration, we can flip the circuit and by choose how we are focusing our eyes either steer ourselves into a state of tense focus, or relaxation.
So instead of trying to burn a hole into an object with our eyes (as I recommended HERE in order to increase muscular tension), you are better off focusing on the periphery, or nothing at all. Since muscular tension is aimed and amplified by fixing your eyes on an object, muscular relaxation can be aided by letting your eyes space out and wander, or even close if the situation allows for it.

Simply making it a point throughout your day to life your eyes from whatever screen (including this one) you are looking at, and instead stare off at the horizon 50, 100, or 500 feet away can have an enormous effect on your body wide tension. This habit alone is as important as learning to not sit as much as you may find yourself doing in this modern world.

So, in order to reduce your muscular tension you should space out, and allow your eyes to wander.

JAW

Discussing the many fine points of how perceptive your jaw is would take far more than what this small article can describe. A simple summary is this; the tension that you hold at your jaw has been shown to reverberate through your whole body (6, 7, 8). So, if you want to be rigid and tense, a clench is going to help. On the other hand, if you want to relax your body, be sure to relax your jaw.

This can easily be integrated into the recommended exhalation techniques; as you exhale allow your jaw to let go.

FACIAL EXPRESSION

Like your hands, this is deceptively simple. It has been shown that after a bout of intense laughter, your body wide muscular reflexes are diminished (9). In fact, simply smiling is enough to cause your body to relax, and if you doubt this just try and see how you fair lifting a heavy weight while being told a good joke. Beware; you might drop it.

So, if you find yourself carrying a lot of bodily tension, check your face more often. Be sure to laugh regularly, or at the very least smile. Getting yourself to let go often requires you be happy with where you are and what you have, after all.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

So, if you want to relax, and maximize your ability to reduce muscular tension you should focus on:

1. Exhaling fully and pausing.
2. Relaxing your hands; shake them out if necessary.
3. Let your eyes wander.
4. Relax your jaw, or at least avoid clenching.
5. Laugh, or at least smile.

Largely, that is all there is to it.

See the video below for a visual explanation of how you can simply begin to use these techniques to your advantage.

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

So what is the use of this insight? Remember the three major things reducing muscular tension can provide:

1. Comfort
2. Flexibility
3. Recovery

In terms of comfort, be sure to use these techniques in moments where you are not comfortable physically, and see if it aides in allowing your body to sink into both itself and the ground a bit better. Barring an injury or serious pathology, it just may help.

In terms of flexibility, be sure to integrate these techniques with any stretching or mobility work you may be doing. The most significant to consider is your breath. Even though it is a common site in gyms across America, stretching while holding your breath is the equivalent of a Chinese finger trap. You just work hard while getting nowhere.

In terms of recovery, be sure that you are not spending your time between training and exercise sessions still in a tense/sympathetic state. Learning to relax does not come naturally or without study for some folks in this life (and especially this modern first world), so having a regular meditation/mindfulness practice where you integrate this body awareness can be extremely helpful.

At first focusing on these things may seem overwhelming for you. If this is the case, it simply means you need to make it a priority to inhabit your body more comfortably, and learn to steer bodily reactions more easily.

With practice, almost anything becomes easier.

Learning to tune tension up at will provides strength when you need it, and learning to tune tension down provides rest and comfort in all the other parts of your life. Work hard when you need to, but let it go in all your other moments.

REFERENCES

1. Mobbs, D et al “The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2015 9: 55

2. Van Der Kolk, B “The body keeps the score. Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma” 2014 Penguin Books

3. Russell M, et al “Inclusion of a rest period in diaphragmatic breathing increases high frequency heart rate variability: Implications for behavioral therapy” Psychophysiology 2017 54: 358-365

4. Mathot S, Van der Stigchel S “ New Light on the Mind’s Eye: The Pupillary Light Response as Active Vision” Current Directions in Psychologocal Science 2015 24(5): 374-378

5. Miller RJ, et al “Effectts of relaxation and aversive visual stimulation on dark focus accommodation” Ophthalmic Physiol Opt 1987; 7(3): 219-23

6. Ebben WP, et al “Jaw clenching results in concurrent activation potentiation during the countermovement jump” J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Nov; 22(6):1850-4

7. Takahashi T, et al “Modulation of H reflexes in the forearm during voluntary teeth clenching in humans” European Journal of Applied Physiology 2004 Nov; 90(5-6): 651-653

8. Miyahara T, et al “Modulation of human soleus H reflex in association with voluntary clenching of the teeth” J Neurophysiol 1996 Sep; 76(3): 2033-41

9. Paskind J “Effects of laughter on muscle tone” Arch Neurol Psychiatry 1932; 28: 623-8