You probably know that stress can make your body feel tense, but one thing that most people don’t know is just how deep into our body that tension can go.
Stress is part of our nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our “fight or flight” mode that is activated when our body senses a threat to our survival, like being chased by a wild animal.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is our “rest and digest” mode where our body can focus on the standard operating procedures and processes.
The body decides which to activate based on our energy needs. For example, when our life is threatened, we don’t need to waste energy on anything except for our mental and physical alertness in case we need to run or fight.
Unfortunately, our body can’t tell the difference between running from a predator, and when you're stressed about that report due tomorrow in that they both activate the SNS.
Research tends to show that in recent years people are spending more time in their SNS as the stresses of regular life consume our conscious and even subconscious minds more than ever.
Stress is a protector
Stress triggers physical tension in the muscles and fascia as a means of protecting itself.
It can be from a sudden stress where the muscles tense up right away, then slowly release as the threat is perceived safe. Or tension can be ongoing from chronic stress.
Chronic Ongoing stress
Most people think the chronic stress response is something that simply affects those tight shoulder, neck, or back muscles because that's what they feel the most. But it's more complicated than that.
Stress affects our entire body from head to toe. But it’s affecting an unbalanced system, considering this is the average state of a modern person’s body.
This is why you may feel one side of the body is tenser than the other, rather than the same amount of tension on both sides.
A perfectly functionally healthy body has muscles and fascia that are completely balanced symmetrically throughout the entire system. The added tension from stress in this state would be evenly distributed throughout the body.
In an unbalanced body, added tension is distributed unevenly. It worsens the already dominant tension patterns of that unbalanced body. The intensity of the shoulders, neck, or back, is mostly because in todays world people are majorly upper body dominant.
Stress adds fuel to already existing compensation and imbalances, making them worse as they cause further compensation from daily use.
This is how stress can increase existing pain anywhere in the body as well as create new pain and increase the risk of injury.
Sudden Acute Stress
The SNS can trigger a massive tension change to protect itself from sudden stress to the body to “guard” and protect the body.
This can be from a physical blow or jarring motion to the body or it can be from a reaction to an injury.
The tension is meant to prevent further injury by preventing movement in the affected area that could cause more harm.
Ironically, most pain is caused by the guarded response itself. When you try to move the guarded area, the nervous system shoots stronger signals of pain as a warning.
This is why you see people who are limping or hunched over, moving very slowly as their nervous system is ramped up and that tension response causes their body to move in even more compensated ways.
In practice, when someone comes to us who is dealing with an acute injury, it’s very clear in their posture and biomechanics how their body is extremely guarded as you can see that distortion of tension.
Stress is an opinion
The shift of our nervous system isn’t based on the actual danger itself, it's based on our brains' perception of danger.
Like when you encounter a dog on the side of the street and your SNS kicks in because your brain decides that this dog may be dangerous. Or when you are about to give a speech in front of an audience and you begin to panic.
These perceptions we make in the present come from stories we create during past experiences. This can be a problem when that story causes a stress response that's unwarranted or not useful.
For example, perhaps you’ve seen movies or have heard from others their experience of totally bombing a speech. Maybe you’ve bombed a speech in the past.
It’s time to do another speech and your brain makes assumptions that people won’t like it, or that you’ll mess up and be embarrassed. It tries to protect you by making you feel horrible so you won’t go up there and make a fool of yourself.
But this hasn’t happened yet, nor do we know that it even will happen, therefore it isn't the truth. Worse, that fear can cause you to perform poorly, making the fear become a reality.
What about the stress you get while sitting in traffic? You may be late for the meeting, but in what possible way does getting stressed about it actually help the situation or the outcome?
It doesn’t make traffic move faster or the others in the meeting feel any different about you being late. The reality is it only causes you and potentially even others pain.
Stress causing pain
Stories around pain and injury can also influence the SNS.
Some people love getting deep tissue massages even though they cause pain because they perceive the pain as something that is helping their body. They don’t perceive the pain as that bad.
To others, the pain is a completely negative experience and therefore something they avoid.
childhood developmental effects on stress
There are some interesting theories on how our childhood experiences can influence our perception of pain. Some children grow up running around climbing things, playing sports, and getting hurt.
They experience broken bones, sprains, cuts, and bruises, which in turn lessens their fear of pain or injury because they have proven time and time again that they will eventually heal. They will be ok. They tend to lean into more adventurous situations.
This would be different than children who never got hurt growing up, or perhaps formed a trauma response around an injury that gave them the perception that they are unsafe and that situations, where they could experience pain or injury, should be avoided.
The adventurous children as adults may experience less SNS activation and “guarded” tension responses when dealing with pain or injury, even healing from physical ailments faster.
The more reserved children as adults may experience greater SNS activation as their brain consistently perceives things as more dangerous, causing greater “guarded” tension and a harder time with pain and healing.
Many times injuries will heal completely, yet for some people, their SNS remain hyper-activated and guarded if there is fear or another heightened emotional response around the injury.
You may even create a story around your stress or emotions which can also affect that very stress itself. You know this if you’ve ever been stressed out or angry at the fact that you are stressed or angry. Your resistance to it makes the stress even worse.
How to reduce stress
Recognize that the mind and body both work in tandem together. There are mental approaches that target the mind, and there are physical approaches to target the body. Either way, you affect the body when targeting the mind, and affect the mind through the body.
Cognitive and emotional therapies can help you better understand how your mind is activating your SNS to protect (or overprotect) you in various situations.
Discovering and having awareness of stories or beliefs you’ve created in the past can help you think more clearly when you connect them with your current emotions and thought patterns. You can also learn to create new stories and beliefs completely.
This can lessen your SNS activation or completely bypass it when unnecessary, releasing physical tension from your body in the process, creating immediate relief, and stopping long-term effects on your postural and movement health.
The only downside of the mental approach is that it doesn’t reverse the negative effects it has already had on your posture and movement patterns.
Breath work can be a simple way to calm the SNS and trigger the PNS by slowing and deepening the breath (or remembering to breathe at all) and bringing presence and awareness to your state of mind and emotions.
Most people know that you can exercise to calm the mind and the SNS. But exercise can also create undesired effects if the exercise you do is worsening your postural and mechanical imbalances.
Therefore the most effective way to use the body to address the SNS is to use exercise and movement that's directed at balancing the body.
Your body is balanced when both sides work the same, as the body is built symmetrically. In the Symmetry of Motion Online Program, we use posture and movement assessments to determine how balanced your body is, then teach you the appropriate exercises to restore balance to your body.
You get the benefits of breath (movement forces you to breathe) as well as balancing tension throughout your body.
Remember stress affects a body that is out of balance far more than one that is balanced because the out-of-balance system functions less efficiently, so there already is constant stress on the system regardless of the SNS.
It's harder for the SNS to cause tension issues in a balanced body as the tension is going to be evenly distributed throughout the system.
We also find that during sudden stress responses, restoring balance to the body can release the protective and guarded tension response, reducing pain and allowing faster healing to any injured area.
Note: The information on this site is not intended as medical advice. If you feel like you have a medical condition, please consult a licensed medical professional.