How the Physical Body Holds Mental Tension

Image: Alexander Jawfox/Unsplash

If you’ve ever endured a nerve-racking situation followed by a throbbing noggin, it wouldn’t seem far-fetched to connect one with the other. Nearly one in four adults reports experiencing multiple headaches every year in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates 50% of all adults have at least one headache annually. Though there are over 150 types of headaches, tension headaches are the most common and often triggered by stress. Yet while doctors might agree the two can be linked, they still don’t understand exactly how.

Brian Cole, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush and a professor of orthopedics, anatomy, and cell biology at Rush University Medical Center, agrees with this sentiment. “The exact reason why stress creates headaches is still unclear. One theory is that muscle tightness in the neck and head, which can reflexively increase with stress, results in dull tension headaches.”

It’s reasonable to presume a relationship between a headache and stressful thought exists because of where the brain is located. Since thoughts tend to be associated with the mind — which is often synonymous with the brain — they all appear to reside in the same place. However, the farther down pain travels in the body — further distancing itself from the head — the murkier the relationship between thoughts and tension becomes.

When pain is felt, it’s usually assigned to a specific body part. Localizing pain to a certain region inadvertently disconnects it from the rest of the body, thus making its origin harder to pinpoint. For instance, there is a low likelihood a medical doctor would suggest the onset of torticollis, a form of neck strain, is the result of ruminating thoughts. Linking kyphosis, or hunchback, with depression sounds even less plausible. But are connections like these really so hard to believe? Not according to Erik Peper, PhD, a professor of holistic health studies at San Francisco State University.

The manifestation of thoughts in the body

In his study, “How Posture Affects Memory Recall and Mood,” Peper illustrates how thoughts and body tension are interrelated. Participants were asked to recall negative memories while sitting in slouched and upright positions. They were told to do this again, but this time to think of positive memories. Peper’s research found that 86% of participants reported it was easier to access negative memories when collapsed than upright, and 87% of participants said it was easier to access positive images while erect than hunched over.

Peper explains, “If you are in a collapsed position, I think almost everybody finds it harder to access or be really involved in a positive memory and vice versa. When you’re in the upright position, it doesn’t mean you can’t have negative or hopeless thoughts. However, if you keep that opposition — as if you’re slightly removed from the emotional impact, once you’re in the upright position, it’s easier to access the more empowering and positive thoughts. Because thoughts and body are not separate.”

The evolutionary patterns of posture are described in Peper’s book, Tech Stress, where he examines the prevalent symbols of power throughout evolution. “A depressed or collapsed posture is a universal symbol of constricted posture in both humans and animals. In nature, throughout the animal kingdom, collapsed posture indicates submission. On the other hand, erect posture universally indicates leadership.”

But don’t get too excited about straightening your back just yet. There is a difference between sitting tall — which connotes length — and sitting straight. The latter has become a well-known way to command sitting correctly. Thoughts evoked by picturing a “straight” back might resemble a soldier pose, the most common depiction of what “standing up straight” looks like. Yet, if the images associated with a straight back were truly congruent with alignment — or balance for that matter — good posture would not be analogous to a fixed and tense figure.

The power of habit

The desire to perform activities successfully is a deep-seated norm. “Sitting up straight” is the perfect example of how people may unwittingly arch backs, lift chests, pull back shoulders, and tighten necks — namely contort their bodies — in a strained attempt to do it the “right” way. Because the alternative — collapse — represents defeat.

A century-old method known as the Alexander technique was developed upon the principle of unknown habits. The founder of the technique, F.M. Alexander, was a Shakespearean actor who repeatedly lost his voice during performances. He thought he was doing everything right, yet his problem only worsened.

Alexander sought the aid of medical professionals to fix his problem but to no avail. He came to wonder if perhaps it was something he was doing to himself that caused his laryngitis. He learned that once he stopped repeating certain habits — such as standing soldier-like while performing — his voice returned. More importantly, he discovered the self-imposed pressure to perform successfully resulted in tense and tight positioning that constricted his breathing and voice.

The next time you sense the slightest tinge of stress — whether you’re running late or feeling angry, frustrated, or generally inadequate — just pause. Take note of what is happening in your body. Catching that moment is key.

Common contributing stressors

Wanting to succeed in life is part of human nature. Social comparison theory tells us that individuals determine their own worth based on thoughts of how they stack up against others. Yet, comparison doesn’t always lead to self-improvement. For example, social media has made measuring up seem impossible as it takes a considerable toll on self-esteem and can lead to depression.

In addition to the pressure of achieving or maintaining success, Americans are notorious workaholics. They work long hours, take few vacations, are more likely to work at night or on weekends, and feel pressured for time. It’s no wonder Americans are among the most stressed people in the world.

Beret Arcaya, a master Alexander technique teacher and the founding member of the American Society for the Alexander Technique, describes this as a “habit of thoughts.” She says this is something we do with our brain and we don’t have to. “You don’t have to be on that rat race. You really don’t. But you’ve got to get conscious of when you’re doing it.”

The way you react to each situation is a choice, though until that choice is realized, the reaction remains a habit. When it comes to lack of time, Arcaya explains, “You have to say, ‘Ah, I was just thinking that way again — I don’t have any time, I don’t have any time, I don’t have any time!’ Wait a minute. Stop and feel what happens to your breath.”

Arcaya tells her students there may never be enough time, but that’s fine. There might even be a way out of the rat race if you don’t react to it. She says, “Don’t even argue with the habit. Don’t even argue with ‘I don’t have enough time, or I didn’t have time today.’ It will make you stay in the moment, and that will elongate the time.” In other words, wait before responding to a stressful thought because that delay keeps you in the present.

Psycho-physical pain

Having taught the Alexander technique for over 40 years, Arcaya is no stranger to human behavior and how habits present themselves as tension. A renowned teacher, people come to her when they have exhausted all other options to ameliorate their pain.

One such woman came to her after suffering for years with terrible neck pain. Doctors couldn’t find a way to help her. They didn’t consider her stress level even though thoughts of neglect, abandonment, betrayal, and loss consumed the woman’s life. She developed a wrenching spasm of the neck called torticollis shortly after the passing of someone beloved to her.

Arcaya recalls it was way beyond a stiff neck, the woman was essentially trapped in her pain. The pain made it impossible to eat or walk properly, forcing her to walk sideways. It seemed the woman couldn’t face the events of her life. Her head was turned away, and the tension locked it there. It was as if it was all too much; she couldn’t even look at it.

When asked if she believed thoughts could directly impact the body, Arcaya responded, “Thoughts and the way you think — and the whole way you are when you are thinking — is your body tension. It doesn’t impact it; it is it.”

See it to believe it

As past president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Peper is an established biofeedback expert. His work focuses on training individuals to learn awareness and gain control of body functions through the aid of electromyography (EMG). During a treatment, biofeedback sensors are attached to the skin to measure the body’s biological signals that are shown as feedback that informs and assists in health improvement.

The psycho-physiological principle asserts that “every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”

Another study led by Peper, who was instrumental in establishing the first holistic health program at a public university in the United States, recorded physiological signals demonstrating the mind-body connection.

A 25-year-old participant who had been playing the piano for 16 years was asked to relax and then imagine playing a musical piece in a series of intervals. Muscle activity was recorded from her right forearm extensor muscles and displayed on a large screen so that other group participants could observe. Each time she imagined playing the piano, the forearm extensor muscle tension increased, even though there was no observed finger and forearm movements. The physiological monitoring showed how her body responded to “playing” only in her thoughts. When recordings of her movement were shown later, she reported being completely unaware of activating her muscles — especially since her forearm appeared to stay in a relaxed position.

If the mere conscious thought of performing an activity (such as playing the piano) can evince body tension, what can be said about the impact of unconscious thinking? This begs the question of what might happen to the body with repeated thoughts of anger, resentment, and hopelessness — or with thoughts of kindness and love.

What you can do (or not do) about your thoughts

According to Arcaya, thoughts don’t have to become tension. She says, “We’re always directing ourselves. We don’t realize it a lot because it is subconscious.” She notes that direction provides a purpose toward a goal that serves to guide or motivate. “To have conscious direction is to take agency over your life. It’s to have self-possession. To take your energy and decide what you will and what you will not do.”

When thought is attached to an expectation and the outcome is unmet, the reaction will translate into tension. That is unless the habitual response is recognized first. The next time you sense the slightest tinge of stress — whether you’re running late or feeling angry, frustrated, or generally inadequate — just pause. Take note of what is happening in your body. Catching that moment is key. Pay attention to your thoughts. Giving yourself even 10 seconds to pause might allow you to substantially calm your nerves and prevent you from going down a familiar spiral that could lead to stress and pain.

Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” A habit can only be changed if it is recognized. Then it’s up to you to make the choice of which direction you choose to take. You could repeat the same habit and get the same outcome or pause and see if a new path presents itself. Who knows, you might even bypass a headache (or two or three or 20) along the way.

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