Recognizing and Releasing Physical Tension
Patterns of Tension
Each of us has a unique pattern of physical tension that builds up as a result of the stress response. The first step in letting go of that tension is learning to recognize it. This chapter describes specific exercises and techniques that help us to identify and release tension that comes from stress. The key is in recognizing how we tense up under stress and then reversing that pattern so that we undermine the stress response.
Chapter Six described a common pattern of tension that we all share when we experience stress. We literally “tense up.” Muscles that pull up and away from the ground are activated in response to stress. I have noticed that, as tension increases, muscles tend to work more in groups. It becomes more difficult to move individual muscles separately when there is more tension. When we are under a lot of tension, our whole body responds in a consistent pattern. I’ve learned that disrupting the overall pattern of tension helps us become aware that we are tensing other groups of muscles, and we are able to stop the build-up of tension throughout our body. We disrupt this pattern of tension by putting ourselves in a position that interferes with tensing up. We can do this by pressing down with our feet while sitting or standing in a way that makes it impossible for us to tense up our whole body. This technique is called grounding.
Figure 1 illustrates what, for most of us, is a normal upright standing posture. However, there is actually quite a bit of tension that is being generated to maintain this position. The legs are straight with the knees locked, the shoulders and chest are lifted slightly, and there is tension all along the spine.
Although this may look normal to the untrained eye, there is a considerable amount of tension being generated simply to maintain this position. These tension patterns become exaggerated during the stress response. Bending our knees disrupts this pattern of tension. We begin to feel how we are tensing when our knees are bent. The same thing happens when we are sitting and press our feet into the ground.
What Is Grounding?
“Grounding” is a term that was originated by Alexander Lowen, who founded Bioenergetics, an approach to psychotherapy that integrates mind and body. When we are grounded, we are aligned so that our bones support us with a minimum of effort from our muscles. The muscles of our legs must work to hold us up when our knees are locked. Bending our knees slightly releases this tension and gives us more flexibility. It also disrupts the pattern of tension that is part of the stress response. Variations on the grounding position are common in sports and martial arts. Body tension will distort a golfer’s swing, a karate master’s kick, or a baseball player’s throw. All of these motions must be carried out with the knees bent if they are to bring about the desired result. Standing with our knees bent and our weight centered behind the balls of our feet is a balanced position that allows us to move with the greatest ease in any direction.
Grounding helps us become aware of and in touch with our body. It also has mental and emotional effects. Grounding “puts our feet on the ground” both literally and figuratively. We think of someone with their “feet on the ground” as being stable, solid, and clear-headed, with common sense and a good grasp of what is realistic and possible. The physical act of grounding has the psychological effect of “putting our feet on the ground.” We think and see more clearly when we are grounded. We become more aware of our surroundings and more in touch with the feelings and concerns of those around us. This fact makes sense when we realize that our body is the vehicle through which we relate to the world. Any restriction of our physical awareness will restrict the information that is available to us.
Our mind can go anywhere. We can be thinking about the dinosaur age, and a second later shift our thoughts to what life might be like in the year 3000. Even though it carries the effects of our past experiences, our body exists only in the present time. Being in touch with our body puts us in touch with what is happening right now. There is no stress when we are fully absorbed in what we are doing at the moment. When mind and body come together in the activity of the moment, stress disappears. That’s why hobbies that absorb our full attention, such as woodcarving or flower arranging, are so relaxing. Our body produces exactly the amount of energy that is needed to carry out the task our mind is focused on. No excess tension is produced. The mental exercises described in the next chapter become much easier to practice after doing the grounding exercises described below.
I have worked with a number of people who have been diagnosed with dissociative disorders. Their attention easily splits away from what they doing at the moment, and they can easily lose track of what they are doing or where they are going. This is not uncommon among people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress. I recall trying to talk with a woman who struggled to answer simple questions because her attention would fly off in one direction or another. I finally stopped the interview and taught her grounding. She became more able to focus as she stood in the grounding position and we were able to finish the initial interview. A few weeks later, after consistently practicing grounding, she was able to be productive again, and to make plans and follow through with them.
Our language reflects how being grounded influences behavior. People are not grounded when they get “upset,” or when they “act up,” or “blow up.” We become grounded as we “slow down” and “settle down.” A man who had been separated from his wife because of an abusive incident told me “I use the grounding and breathing as soon as I start to feel upset. It settles me down and I can listen to what she’s saying. Before, I would blow up and not even realize what I was doing, let alone what she was trying to tell me.”
Thoughts About the Grounding Stance
The correct grounding stance is a precise alignment of our body with the forces of gravity. However, this precision is not the most important aspect of grounding. Grounding is helpful to the extent we are moving in the direction of becoming more grounded. Being exactly in balance with our body structure and the forces of gravity gives us a center point that we can move toward. It is not a position to be held rigidly – using tension to achieve grounding defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.
Most people initially report that the grounding stance is uncomfortable. That is to be expected for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not the usual way of standing for most people and so can feel a bit awkward. Second, grounding helps us to become aware of tension in our body and we will experience this tension as discomfort. However, it is important to distinguish discomfort from pain. Grounding is a process of working with our body rather than on our body. Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. Even though we commonly hear the phrase “no pain, no gain,” pain is not “gain” when doing these exercises. We often tense in response to pain and thereby undermine the positive effects of grounding.
It is helpful to differentiate between the grounding exercise and the grounding stance. In the grounding exercise described below, we bend our knees deeper and pay close attention to our overall posture. The grounding stance simply involves bending our knees slightly and adjusting our weight so we feel it just behind the balls of our feet. It is helpful to use the grounding stance any time we are standing up. We can significantly minimize the amount of tension we build in our bodies to the extent this becomes our normal way of standing. It is also important to maintain Natural Rhythmic Breathing throughout all of these exercises. You don’t want to be creating tension when you are working to become aware of it and to let it go. Chapters Seven and Eleven describe how Natural Rhythmic Breathing helps us to stop the build-up of tension that results from the stress response.
How to Practice Grounding
Start with your feet. Place them about the width of your hips apart. If this feels unstable, move your feet a little farther apart. Align them pointing straight ahead so that if you were to draw lines from your heel to middle toe on both feet, those lines would be parallel. Figure 2 illustrates the proper position. (You might feel a bit pigeon-toed in this position since many of us tend to stand with our feet pointed outward.)
Gradually allow your knees to come forward as your pelvis moves back. Shift your weight until you feel that it is centered just behind the balls of your feet. One way to test this is to lift your heels slightly. If you lose your balance, your weight is back toward your heels. Figure 3 demonstrates the proper grounding stance. The vertical line illustrates how the alignment is consistent with the force of gravity. The pelvis is supported by the legs, which are bent at the knee and flexible. The spine is supported by the pelvis and the head by the spine. The top of the head is directly over a point just behind the balls of the feet.
Figure 4 illustrates a common distortion of the grounding position. Many people tend to tilt their pelvis forward when they bend their knees. Notice that the line drawn down from the top of the head comes down behind the heels. Increased tension is necessary to maintain the position in figure 4, while the position in figure 3 minimizes tension. It is helpful to use a mirror to guide our positioning when learning this exercise. The key is to have our pelvis back and our weight centered just behind the balls of the feet. One way to feel this is to gently shift your weight from your toes to your heels and gradually find the centered point.
This may feel a bit awkward at first. A lot of people report that they feel as though they are going to fall forward when they assume the proper grounding stance. That simply means that their habitual way of standing incorporates a pattern of tension that shifts their weight back on their heels.
Simply standing in the grounding stance is a very effective exercise. Your legs might start to shake after you maintain this position for a while. That’s simply an indication that tension is being released; it is a normal part of the grounding process. If it becomes uncomfortable, bending your knees a little less will reduce the intensity. Remember that the purpose of these exercises is body awareness. Trying to push yourself to go past discomfort is counterproductive.
As you work on relaxing into the grounding stance, you will begin to notice patterns of tension as areas of discomfort in your body. You can begin to release this tension through gentle stretching or slow, easy movement. Tension involves holding. Movement and stretching are the opposite of holding and tend to relieve built-up tension. It is important to remember the terms “gentle” and “slow” when doing these exercises. Fast movement or extreme stretching can easily damage a muscle that has held a lot of tension.
A very helpful exercise that can be done from the grounding stance is to very gently bounce downward. This involves rhythmically flexing our knees as we let our shoulders, arms, neck, and jaw relax. Chapter Six described how various muscle groups work in opposition to each other. The stress response uses muscles that pull up and away from the ground; bouncing downward involves the opposing muscles. We cannot tense up and bounce down at the same time.
Another helpful grounding exercise is to let your head drop forward and gradually roll down until your hands touch the floor or you reach a point of discomfort. Your legs maintain the grounding stance as you bend at the waist as shown in Figure 5. It is important to breathe slowly and deeply during this exercise and to focus on relaxing as you exhale. Note that your knees remain bent throughout the exercise. It is also important to be aware of the position of your head. There is a strong tendency to raise your head so that you are looking at your feet or the floor (Figure 6). This creates tension in the neck and shoulders that needs to be avoided. You should be able to see the wall behind you from this position. If your eyes look toward your feet, there is tension in your neck. How far down you are able to go with your hands is a function of your overall body flexibility and has no impact upon the effectiveness of the exercise. Simply go down as far as is comfortable.
There is no set amount of time to maintain this position except to stay within your comfort levels. A minute or so can have a significant calming influence. If you come up too quickly from this position you are likely to become light-headed. It is best to slowly roll upward from the base of your spine while continuing to allow your head to hang. Think of starting from the bottom of your spine and gradually setting each vertebra on top of the one below it. Figures 7, 8, and 9 illustrate this sequence. Slowly breathing in as you rise, and relaxing during the exhalation, prevents light-headedness and helps to further relax the muscles of your back, neck, and shoulders. Grounding is not a position of relaxation when we are first learning it. It is more likely to feel awkward and uncomfortable. As we become more familiar with it, however, we gradually let go of tension that restricts our efforts. After a time, it becomes very relaxing, and we realize that we feel more comfortable, and move and work with a greater sense of ease, to the extent that we are grounded.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.