For a long time it was thought that stress was only a psychological condition, fruit of our mind and limited to it. Now we know that the consequences of stress are not limited to the emotional level but also have an impact at a physical level. Therefore, it is not strange that after a hard week of work we end up suffering stress-induced muscle tension, which can get worse if we continue being tense and do not learn how to relax.
The impact of emotions on the body
At the brain level, the amygdala and the hippocampus, two structures that are part of the limbic system, are responsible for storing and managing emotions. However, the body also clings to the emotions of the past.
Every feeling or emotion that we experience translates into a peptide that is released somewhere in our body. Our organs, tissues, skin, muscles and endocrine glands have peptide receptors, so they could access and store that emotional information. This means that emotional memory is stored in different parts of the body, not just in the brain.
The unexpressed emotions do not disappear but are literally stored in the body, while the emotions that are expressed reflect in the body but do not remain stagnant but flow and disappear or integrate harmoniously without causing harm.
A very interesting study conducted at the University of Aalto revealed how we experience emotions in the body. The curious thing was that, regardless of the cultural influences, all the participants agreed on the map of the bodily sensation for basic and complex emotions, from love to shame.
How is produced stress-induced muscle tension?
The bodily experience of emotion is almost instantaneous. It took us only a few seconds to experience a negative emotion at the body level. When we are stressed, we automatically tense the muscles of the jaw and those around the eyes and mouth, as well as the muscles of the neck and back. These muscles tense at the same time to prepare the body to react and then relax when the stressful situation has disappeared.
It is a reflex reaction to protect us and is not really harmful, except when stress becomes a chronic state. In that case, the muscles never relax but remain in a state of constant tension.
In fact, it has been proven that people subjected to a level of chronic stress over time suffer a shortening of the muscles of the neck and shoulders. It has also been appreciated that a large mental workload produces an increase in muscle tension in the cervical and shoulder areas, especially in the case of people working at the computer.
One theory explains that muscle tension decreases blood flow to the affected area, which reduces the supply of oxygen, favoring the accumulation of lactic acid and toxic metabolites. In addition, the shortening of muscle fibers can also activate pain receptors. In fact, it is known that nerve structures are activated when there is stress, so that it also lowers the pain threshold and makes us perceive it more intensely than it really is.
The picture worsens with lack of movement, which further decreases blood flow and oxygenation. Thus we fall into a vicious circle. Therefore, people who fear pain and re-injury, and only seek a physical cause and cure for the injury, generally have a worse recovery than those who maintain a moderate level of physical activity and supervised by a doctor.
Stress-induced muscle tension: Symptoms and solutions
Stress-induced muscle tension has been associated with anxiety dizziness, but also causes chronic muscle pain, contractures and even muscle spasms. In fact, more and more people are suffering from chronic painful conditions due to musculoskeletal disorders.
Muscle aches from stress often affect these areas:
- Jaw. Emotions such as anger and stress often cause us to squeeze the jaw and muscles around the mouth. We do it without realizing it, but with enormous force, so it is not strange that all that area ends up affected.
Solution? When you feel stressed, you should release your jaw as if you were sighing. It also helps to yawn or pronounce the “O” with closed lips.
- Eyebrows. When you are tense or worried, it is usual to frown, which adds a great muscular tension to the area of the forehead that usually gives rise to anxiety dizziness.
Solution? Free your forehead by raising and lowering your eyebrows about five times. It will also help you to inhale deeply while closing your eyes, and then exhale while releasing tension and opening your eyes.
- Neck. Stress-induced muscle tension usually concentrates on the neck, especially if you perform an office job.
Solution? It is important to favor blood flow to the neck muscles by moving the head gently from side to side and up and down.
- Shoulders. A lot of tension is usually concentrated in the shoulders, so it is common for them to be the epicenter of muscle contractures due to stress.
Solution? Inhale as you raise your shoulders trying to touch the ears and exhale as you lower them, guiding them backwards. A good massage in the area can also work miracles.
- Back. Stress also interferes with the coordination of muscle groups involved in the functioning of the back. The normal thing is that the abdominals and the paravertebral muscles coordinate with each other to maintain a posture or balance during the movement. However, this coordination depends on nervous reflexes, so that stress affects the coordination of these reflexes and causes the muscles to contract improperly, which favors muscle contractures due to stress.
Solution? A hot shower can help relax the muscles of the back, as well as maintaining a moderate level of physical activity. Yoga exercises are also ideal for relieving that muscle pain.
How to avoid stress-induced muscle tension?
Prevention is better than cure. Therefore, although the above exercises help relieve stress-induced muscle tension, the ideal is to assume a lifestyle that protects us from anxiety and its consequences. In many occasions this implies making a radical change at the interior level and assume that it is not always possible to change the situation, but we can change the way we react to it, and that may be enough to achieve serenity and inner peace.
– Learn to prioritize. Stress is usually the result of overwhelm, it is a situation that exceeds our coping resources, so one way to avoid it is to learn to prioritize. When you know what is important in your life, you can better organize your day and stop worrying so much about those small tasks that can become a real black hole, through which your time and energy escapes. And if necessary, you must also learn to delegate and trust more on the others. There is no need for you to take charge of everything personally, ask for help and delegate all those responsibilities that do not correspond to you, both professionally and personally. When everyone around us assumes their responsibilities, everything will flow much better.
– Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent method to combat stress-induced muscle tension because it increases emotional awareness, facilitating the management of emotional states. There are different techniques, one of them is to focus on an emotion and analyze its impact on the body, without judging, since the objective is to understand how the tension is reflected in the different muscle groups. Then you can imagine that this emotion is like a cloud that moves away, so that by not clinging to it, you can relax and improve emotional self-control. Thanks to Mindfulness you can develop awareness, realize when stress comes and quit it immediately before it causes damage. Mindfulness, on the other hand, will help you live more in the present, so it will help you prevent the tensions caused by the future.
– Applies cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a very effective technique to take on potentially stressful situations in a more objective way. It will help you establish a psychological distance, putting emotions aside. This technique is used to identify and correct the negative thought patterns that feed stress. This technique requires a hard inner work since you must identify the irrational beliefs that are favoring the stress and question them through a series of questions, such as: What is the worst that could happen if that thought becomes real? Or, what are the real chances that this thought will become a fact?
– Practice relaxation techniques. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to avoid stress, so it is convenient to have at hand an arsenal of relaxation techniques that help relieve tensions. If you have little time, you can apply some techniques to relax in a few minute, but it is convenient that at least three times a week you apply other methods, such as Jacobson Relaxation Technique or breathing exercises.
Nummenmaaa, L. et. Al. (2014) Bodily maps of emotions. PNAS; 111(2): 646-651. Davidson, R. J. (2013) The emotional life of your brain. Nueva York: Plume.