Releasing Stress and Tension through Meditation

Stress is Unavoidable

We all experience stress in our daily lives. When we think of stress, we likely think of something that we would rather avoid. But, not all stress has negative impacts or outcomes.

Hans Selye coined the term eustress to describe stressors that positively affect us. Anyone who has been ready to take on a new challenge, or tackle a big project, is experientially familiar with this term. This is equally true of anyone who has shuffled their schedule to accommodate a new relationship, or pushed their body a little further to achieve a new personal best. When we are experiencing eustress, we may stay up late to finish just one last thing, and still spring out of bed hours before the alarm, full of energy and brimming with excitement.

One of the key differences between eustress and distress is that with eustress we feel up to the challenge at hand. We see what is happening to us as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We believe we will succeed. It is likely that we have chosen, or are in control of, the stressor rather than feeling like it was thrust upon us.

Stress responses can result from external or internal stimuli. What type of stress we experience may depend more on our interpretation than on what is happening inside of or around us.

Although distress is experienced as negative, the effects are fleeting. When we’re stuck in traffic, we may feel very frustrated, but as soon as we’re moving again, our tension fades away. If we experience morning traffic every time we go to work, our response to it doesn’t necessarily have a cumulative effect, but it could.

If the causes of our stress are ongoing, or occur frequently enough, they become chronic stress. Even a source of stress that occurs only once can lead to chronic stress, if we are unable to process and release the resulting tension. When we hold onto emotional pressure, anxiety, or physical strain, the effects are more severe.

Among other things, experiencing chronic stress can compromise the immune system, and also increase the risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

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Noticing Tension & Strain

When do you become aware of stress? Does it have a tendency to sneak up on you? By the time you concede that there is an issue:

  • Are you are becoming frustrated easily and snapping at people you care about?
  • Do you feel completely overwhelmed and lack motivation?
  • Have you shut yourself off from the world and decided that from here on out it’s just you, Netflix, and a tub of ice cream?
  • Is your mind racing and refusing to focus?

Our body is typically reacting to stress long before we’re consciously aware of it. As we become more adept at observing ourselves, we cultivate our ability to identify the early signs of stress. Regular meditation increases our awareness of both physical sensations, and the ways that our mind and body interact.

“Regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can prevent,
and compensate for, the damage incurred by
frequent nervous reactions that
pulse through our hearts and bodies.”
Herbert Benson
The Relaxation Response

Experiencing stress results in muscle tension. Although the manifestation of stress in the body varies from person to person, some early indicators include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Biting nails
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Clenching fists or jaw
  • Decreased energy
  • Digestive issues
  • Grinding teeth
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension

Was There a Warning?

One of the main reasons stress sneaks up on us is that we spend the majority of our time focused on what’s happening around us. This external focus can cause us to, quite literally, lose touch with ourselves. Have you ever been so immersed in what you are doing that you:

  • realize you feel totally famished because it’s been so long since you’ve eaten anything
  • find yourself sprinting to the toilet because you forgot to “check in” with your bladder until it was an emergency situation
  • find your legs have gone completely numb while you were sitting in one position at your desk

“From early childhood onward, most of us get into bad habits
in the way we use our bodies.
These eventually include not only a bad diet,
excessive drinking, smoking and lack of exercise,
but also the way in which we hold ourselves,
the way we move, and the way we breathe.
Over the years, tensions creep up on us almost unnoticed.”
David Fontana, PhD
Learn to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Self-Discovery and Fulfillment

Restoring the Mind & Body Connection

Meditation and mindfulness encourage a more balanced focus. Through practice we become more aware of both what’s happening internally and externally. When we allow ourselves to be calm and still, we notice our thoughts, emotions, and also physical sensations.

Although any meditation technique might increase body awareness or relieve tension, there are a few techniques specifically designed for this purpose.

Observing Emotional Reactions

Recalling emotional reactions through this meditation technique allows you to become an observer of the various sensations which arise with your feelings. Knowing how your body responds to an emotion can help you more easily identify what you’re feeling. Sometimes, just labeling a feeling will take the steam out of it. When you’re able to identify your emotions, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll be intentional about your reactions to them.

To use this technique:

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit down.
  • You may want to close your eyes, or focus on something stable.
  • Take deep breaths into your belly, notice your stomach rising and falling with each breath.
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Do your best to let go of everything outside of you, drawing your attention inward.
  • Do your best to let go of whatever is occupying your mind – worries, obligations, to do lists…
  • Take your time, be fully accepting of where you are and what you’re feeling physically and emotionally.

Happiness

  • If you are able to reach a state of relaxation, and detach from any racing thoughts, think of a memory that still brings you joy.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling happiness in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did your body become warmer?
  • Did you feel your lips forming a smile?
  • Did your eyes well up with tears of joy?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Sorrow

  • Once you have fully experienced your happy memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a memory that brings you sorrow.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling sorrow in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did you feel emptiness in your chest?
  • Did your breathing become more rapid, or more shallow?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Frustration

  • Once you have fully experienced your sad memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a memory that is frustrating.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling frustration in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did your jaw or hands clench?
  • Did you feel tension or pain in your neck or back?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Anxiety

  • Once you have fully experienced your frustrating memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a thought that causes you anxiety.
  • Most of what causes us anxiety is in the future, rather than the past.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that thought and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling anxiety in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did you feel nauseous?
  • Did you feel your energy depleting?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

This technique aids in the discovery of our body’s reactions to emotion and gives us a chance to sit back and observe our physical responses in a safe and comfortable environment. It opens us up to the realization that our emotions gain strength when we fight, suppress, or attempt to ignore them. Acceptance of and leaning into our feelings, allows us to return to a relaxed, neutral state in our mind and body.

Body Scanning

Body scanning is a meditative technique that lets the mind wander, searching the body, looking for areas that are holding tension. Over time, body scans can reveal patterns in where and how we hold onto stress.

Below is an audio recording that will guide you through a short body scanning session. Before you begin, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down. Once you’re situated, press play.

Guided Meditation: Body Scan

When you’re finished, take one more deep breath, wiggle your toes and fingers, bring your knees up to your chest, then roll onto one side. Gradually open your eyes, letting the outside world back in. Give yourself a minute to adjust, then slowly sit up.

Listening to the Body

Our bodies are full of wisdom, all we need to do is learn how to listen to them. When we take the time to unwind and release the residual effects of stress, it unshackles us from the weight of the associated tension, strain, and pain. Without that burden, we are freed to experience joy, wonder, and gratitude. We have the energy to run, play, and live life to the fullest.

Listening to our body opens up a deeper level of self-awareness. It helps us develop inner strength and resilience. It breeds authenticity and promotes self-compassion.

“If you keep your attention in the body as much as possible,
you will be anchored in the now,
you won’t lose yourself in the external world
and you won’t lose yourself in your mind.
Thoughts and emotions will still be there to some extent
but they won’t take you over.”
Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

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Published by Chris Dove

Writer, presenter, consultant, sociologist, optimist, aspiring minimalist, recovering perfectionist, pathfinder, human (post coffee)

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