The other day, I was having an immensely frustrating conversation with a customer service representative who I felt was not at all hearing or addressing my concerns about a situation. In a matter of moments, the muscles in my body tensed up, my posture became tight and crunched, and my breathing became more rapid. Thankfully I was able to reach someone shortly after that who was kind, caring, and willing to try and help resolve the situation. Within less than a minute of speaking with that second person, my body completely relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I found myself standing up straighter and feeling more at ease.
Our bodies are often unconsciously responding to stressors throughout our day, reacting to perceived threats by activating our innate stress response. Without realizing it, we can get locked into patterns of bodily responses that can keep us in chronic states of tension. Interestingly, 80 percent of the fibers of our vagus nerve (a large nerve of the autonomic nervous system that travels throughout our body and innervates our organs via several branches) travel from the body to the brain, while only 20 percent of these fibers travel from the brain to the body. This means that our body signals and bodily states send important messages to our brain and play a large role in our perception of stress.
When we are stressed, our muscles tense, our posture shifts, and our breathing becomes quicker and more shallow in an effort to protect us from the perceived “threat.” These bodily changes can, in turn, increase our experience of stress and act in a kind of negative feedback loop, feeding the stress cycle.
While in the example above, the external situation (talking with the caring customer service agent) helped to create a positive shift in my body, we don’t have to wait for external situations to change to move ourselves in the direction of greater ease and well-being. As polyvagal expert and coach Michael Allison teaches, we can bring this about by making intentional changes to our muscle tension, breathing, and posture.
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Do this quick experiment:
Think of something in your week that is causing you stress. Now scrunch up and tighten all your muscles, make your breathing shallow and quick, and slump over, saying to yourself, “I’m so stressed.”
Now, think of that same stressor, but this time stand up tall, relax all your muscles, and take slow, deep breaths, saying to yourself, “I’m so stressed.” What happened? I know for me, it is very hard to experience high levels of stress when all the signals from my body to my brain are saying, “All is well down here; it’s safe to relax.”
In a study from 2015, participants were randomly assigned to remain in either a slumped or upright posture while they completed a variety of tasks. Those in the upright posture reported higher self-esteem, lower fear, reduced negative mood, increased positive mood, and higher levels of arousal. The researchers suggest that sitting upright in the face of stress can help build resilience and affect our mood in positive ways.
Researcher Erik Peper has conducted various studies demonstrating that posture changes (whether slouched or upright) can have significant effects on thoughts, energy level, and emotions, and even can affect physical strength in the body.
Softening the muscles in our face and jaw has an effect on our ventral vagal nerve fibers which play an important role in turning down our stress response and activating the part of our nervous system that aids in rest, growth, and recovery.
Muscle tension due to stress (our instinctual guarding in the face of perceived threats), when prolonged and chronic, can lead to other stress-related disorders of the body.
While stress and anxiety can increase muscle tension, muscle tension can also increase feelings of anxiety and stress, by increasing circulating levels of lactate in the blood. Additionally, this can cause an experience of pain, which, in turn, is experienced by the body as stressful, and this can feed the loop in a negative way.
Progressive muscle relaxation (systematically squeezing and then releasing muscle groups in the body to fully relax them) has been shown to lead to immediate psychological and physiological relaxation and reduction of stress.
Faster, shallow breathing activates the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system and can actually contribute to our experience of anxiety and stress.
Slowing down our breath to between 6 and 10 breaths per minute optimizes the efficiency of our respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous systems and can help to increase feelings of calm and well-being.
In a study exploring the effects of diaphragmatic breathing, participants were divided into either an eight-week breathing intervention group or a control group. Those who were taught diaphragmatic breathing experienced an increase in sustained attention, a decrease in negative affect, and lower cortisol levels (a marker of stress).
Bring attention and intention to these three aspects of your experience as you go through your day:
- Muscle tension
- Release muscle tension: Take moments throughout your day to notice what is happening in your body. Where do you feel tightness, tension, or contraction? Can you gently soften muscles that might be holding unnecessary tension? Try this by focusing on one area at a time, paying particular attention to the muscles of your face around your eyes, your forehead, and your jaw. Invite these muscles to relax and soften, perhaps by picturing an ice cube melting in hot water or another image that evokes a sense of letting go for you. Once these muscles soften, bring your awareness down to your neck and shoulders and invite these muscles to soften in a similar manner. You can scan down your body in this manner, imagining a warm light soothing and softening as it travels down your body. If you have trouble relaxing your muscles, you might try progressive muscle relaxation, where you first tense and then relax each muscle group systematically.
- Adjust your posture: Are you sitting upright or slumped over (or standing with your head and neck aligned or out of alignment)? Imagine a string attached to the top of your head gently pulling your head upward. Roll your shoulders up and back, opening the chest (and notice how that affects your breathing). Experiment with slumping over and notice what emotions come up as you do that compared to when you are sitting upright. Periodically throughout the day, do a quick posture check and posture adjustment. Do this when you are aware of stress creeping in and notice what happens.
- Slow and deepen your breath: Put your hands on your belly. Notice that as you breathe in your belly rises and as you breathe out your belly falls. With the next few rounds of breath, imagine and feel the lower ribs expanding to the sides as you breathe in, and moving back closer together as you breathe out. Invite your breath to deepen and slow down so that you are taking about five to six seconds to breathe in, and five to six seconds to breathe out (or whatever slower pace works in your body). As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in a quality such as calm, and say this word to yourself. As you breathe out, imagine you are sending another desired quality down through your body such as peace, and say this word to yourself as you breathe out.
Periodically throughout the day, take a minute break to soften muscle tension, shift and straighten your posture, and deepen your breathing. Try this intentionally at moments when you feel stress building. Know that these small changes can add up over time and may make big differences for your well-being.