Have you ever been told to relax more during a massage? I remember being told over and over to relax or let go. Try as hard as I could, my shoulders remained pulled up to my ears and I began to think the masseuse was full of crap. “I am relaxing, darn it!” I would think begrudgingly. It took me years of yoga and mindfulness practice to realize that didn’t know how to relax. Once I figured out how to relax my body fully, something miraculous happened. I was able to relax my mind too.
Why We Are Tense
In the last few years of researching my anxiety and how it was affecting me, I found one thing to be clear. The mind and the body are connected and greatly influence each other. I’ve also found that with practice, learning to control the body is much easier than controlling the mind.
When we are feeling stressed or anxious, it triggers the brain. We release stress hormones throughout the body and wake up the fear systems of the brain. This causes the body to involuntarily respond to a potential threat. This can show up differently for everyone, but as a yoga teacher, I commonly see this in our posture. Fear causes the shoulders to round up and forward, protecting our chest, or to stay lifted and tense, ready for battle.
Of course, the longer we hold on to these feelings, we see the tension move into other areas of the body. Tightness in the hips has been greatly associated with unreleased emotions (in the yoga world, not science). We notice tension in the face through intense eyebrows or a clinched jaw.
Relaxing the Stomach
The most concerning place we store our anxiety, at least in my opinion, is within the belly. You know that feeling when drive down a steep hill or move through a roller coaster? The one that causes a little flip in your stomach and it tenses up? We experience similar, but less dramatic, feelings in the belly when undergoing stress. This causes us to clinch our stomachs without even realizing it.
While a clinched stomach sounds like a good idea, especially when sporting a bikini, this is only going to increase the original stress and anxiety.
When we contract our bellies, we aren’t able to allow the diaphragm to fully expand when we breath. In order to take the fullest breath, the belly must be released allowing air to fill the diaphragm completely. Being able to take deep breaths helps the body to relax, thus releasing the grip that the anxiety may have over us.
Full belly breaths allow the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This activates all the hormones and body reactions needed for calming down. In turn, this helps to shut off the sympathetic nervous system, which is related to the fight or flight reactions we encounter when afraid.
Hack the Cycle
While we can now see how the mind impacts the body, it’s important to recognize that this can happen in the other direction as well. When we carry tension in the body, our minds will worry that something is wrong. It will actually seek something to get anxious about.
We see this with our breath, too. Ready to try a little experiment? Notice the pace of your breath right now. Over the next minute or so, began to make the breath shorter and shorter, until it becomes rapid. Take note – do you suddenly feel a bit more stressed and anxious?
Let’s review – if the body is tense, we will become more anxious. If we are anxious, the body will become more tense. It feels like some horrible hamster wheel we are unable to hop off of, right?
There’s good news! You can hack the system. If you can use the body to cause stress and anxiety, you can use the body to calm the mind too, right?
When practicing body relaxation, whether through yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, or any other modality, you can take charge of your overthinking mind. When you allow rest, the mind begins to rest as well. It’s easier than you think!
Body Relaxation Meditation
In today’s meditation, I will use a combination of breath work and visualization to help you relax into the body. If you are newer to meditation, know that your mind is going to wander. You may not get your body to relax as much as you’d like to. That’s okay.
Before we begin the meditation, take a moment to release any expectations of the practice. It may take a number of times before the techniques start to work. Be patient with yourself, always.
As I said before, I invite you to return to this meditation as many times as you need to. It’s also a wonderful practice before bed if you are struggling to relax into sleep for the night.
Befriending Your Anxious Mind
If anxiety is a big problem in your life, know that you can take control of it. I did! I used to find myself curled up on my bathroom floor, unable to breathe, clutching at my chest in sheer panic. There were times when my anxiety put me in the hospital for extreme chest pain that was never diagnosed. I’ve been there and it is pure hell.
However, I’ve found so many ways to work with my anxiety, rather than try banishing it. I’ve found techniques that help me to quickly take control again when I’m near panic attack. Yoga practices have helped to keep my brain calm and manageable. Now I find my anxiety to be a useful tool to point out what’s important to me or where I need to focus more.
It’s possible to feel in control. There are ways to make friends with your overthinking mind instead of fighting it.
If you are needing someone to talk to about your anxiety, I’m always here to help.
What practices help your body relax? Comment below!