For most of us, certain areas of the body are more likely to gather tension and stress. Whether it’s our shoulders, neck, hips, or lower back, it’s often personal – and reoccurring. We start to know our areas of tension like we may recognize freckles and birthmarks that dot our body and can even sense it before it truly takes hold.
Tension can be physically uncomfortable, like a weight that constantly contracts our muscles. But what if this collection of stress in the body was about more than just a knot of muscular tension? What if your body’s stress was also tied to your deepest feelings? Experts contend that the places where we hold tension are directly linked to certain repressed emotions.
What is Tension in the Body?
Tension is the result of muscles that remain contracted in the body for long periods of time. These places of tension can often cause knots, also known as myofascial trigger points, within the muscle tissue. Over time, these knots can cause pain that’s either tender to the touch or constantly radiates.
“Knots are build-ups of lactic acid in the body from over-contracting your muscles,” says Darragh Simon, owner of Trinity Wellness and a licensed massage therapist with over two decades of experience. “You may not realize that you’re contracting your muscles, but your shoulders are creeping up toward your ears and you’re clinching your jaw and when the muscles are tense, blood can’t flow freely to the area.”
Hyper-tensed muscles are caused by mental stress, physical exertion, and bad posture. A lack of blood flow to these places of tension in the body can make matters worse.
The most common place for muscular knots in the body is the trapezius muscle, the triangular muscle that moves from the neck to the shoulders and upper back. Other places of tension often occur in the neck, hips, shoulders, and lower back.
“When you’re stressed, you may also hold tension in the weakest part of your body,” says Simon. “So, for example, if a part of the body has experienced physical trauma, then that’s a place that may experience tension first.”
How Tension in the Body is Tied to Emotional Health
According to Sean Grover, a psychotherapist and author, “stress is a state of psychic tension.” He says that we’ve long known that tension in the body was symbolically tied to mental stress, and age-old phrases like "you’re got the weight of the world on your shoulders" are a great example. But what might be less well-known is that where we hold stress in the body can actually say a lot about the various repressed emotions that we may carry with us through life.
Here's what where you carry tension may say about your repressed emotions.
Neck and Shoulders
Tension in the shoulders is tied to feeling weighted down or burdened by too many responsibilities, says Grover. Traditionally, according to Simon, women more commonly hold stress in their shoulders because they are often balancing the weight of being master multi-taskers – working while remaining the primary caregiver in a family. While the balance is shifting in many homes, Simon says her practice still reflects this phenomenon. If you want to dive deeper into the shoulders, try this article on the reasons your shoulder tension and emotions are so connected.
Hips are often a place where we hold repressed sexual energy and tension. Tight hips can also symbolize rigidity or inflexibility, says Grover. If you want to learn more about what your tight hips are telling you, read this article on the remarkable link between tight hips and your emotions.
Grover says that this is among the most common issues he sees. Lower back tension, he says, is associated with repressed anger. Patients may feel anger toward their boss or their spouse that shows up in the form of lower back pain.
Simons says that lower back pain is also linked to the root chakra, a yogic term for one of the seven spinning centers of energy in the body. The root chakra is tied to fears of your basic survival and needs of food, sleep, shelter, and safety.
How To Address Tension in the Body
While deep and soft tissue massage are a great place to start in terms of breaking up tension, for some, it’s not enough.
“Sometimes it’s just a pill that doesn’t address a larger problem,” says Simon. “Many issues may require a more emotional component.”
Simon is a fan of cranial sacral therapy because it provides somatic emotional release in addition to a deep release of fascia. With light touch, the practitioner realigns the cerebral fluid to bathe the nervous system and restore balance to the entire body. She also recommends Reiki, energy work that can help the body to heal its own energy blockages.
According to Grover, addressing mental tension and the physical tension it causes takes a three-pronged approach. Therapy is a good place to start, because it allows you to “exercise your psyche.” He also recommends cardio exercise for thirty minutes at least three times per week. Cardio has been proven time and time again to vastly reduce anxiety and depression. Grover also says that yoga or some forms of deep stretching are important to help you break open emotions that are held deep in the body.
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