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man with stiff neck sitting on couch It’s quite common to feel tension in our body when we’re experiencing thoughts, a situation, or a relationship that is tense. Some people notice tightness in the stomach, neck, shoulders, or upper chest. Tension in the body has a benefit of warning us that we are under stress. We can use this as an impetus to change.

Reflection Point: Take a moment and think about where in your body you notice tension when you’re under stress.

According to a study completed by the American Psychological Association, 49 percent of adults admit to overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress at least weekly. Other studies show that stress can result significant increases in drug, alcohol or tobacco.

Your Stress Barometer

A challenge with reducing stress is catching it before it escalates impacting our wellbeing and ability to perform well. The physical signs of tension you feel in your body can become your own internal stress barometer. When you notice tension in your body, be curious about what may be triggering it. Consider the following factors:

  • Physical – Being physically unwell due to a fever, upset stomach, allergies, lack of sleep or poor nutrition.
  • Mental – The mind-body connection is well documented. Thoughts can trigger tension in the body when we worry or focus on a negative mindset.
  • Environmental – Clutter, bad ergonomics, poor lighting, and noise are examples of environmental factors that can cause you to feel physically stressed.
  • Social – Relationships can either support us or cause us stress and worry.
  • Emotional – Emotional responses to our thoughts, circumstances, or relationships can manifest as physical stress symptoms.

Reflection Point: Ask yourself, for the area of the body you noticed feeling tension in, what factor or factors are the source of the tension?

The Change Challenge 

If you feel like you have a lot of sources of stress, it can feel paralyzing. It can also have the opposite effect and drive us to want to make a lot of changes at once. Neither of these options will move you toward successful, sustainable change.

There’s some good news. You most likely haven’t accounted for the magic of the ripple effect. Often when we focus our efforts to change in one area, other areas naturally benefit.

For example, if you’re experiencing significant stress in the area of emotional wellbeing (scoring it between a 1 and a 3) and you create a strategy to improve your emotional state of mind doing an activity such as a short daily meditation, you most likely will start to feel less stress and tension in your body.

Human beings tend to live in a paradox when it comes to change. So often we hear others or ourselves say that we are afraid of it or that we hate change. Yet, life IS change. Why do so many people seem to struggle with change? Particularly changes that we know may improve our health, wellbeing, and quality of life? Most people have evidence they have failed at implementing healthy choices in the past. Who hasn’t started at least once on a January first with the intention of hitting the gym more regularly or eating better or getting out of debt only to give up in a few days or weeks?

Many of us hold a common limiting belief that willpower and discipline are the defining factors that help someone create a new, healthy habit. People often label themselves as weak if they are not able to follow through on healthy lifestyle goals. In fact, the real perpetrator is stress. When we’re under a high degree of stress, our ability to access the executive function part of our brain to change our behaviors is limited. 

Plan for Change

Identify one factor that is contributing to the physical tension in your body and create a plan for reducing or eliminating it. Follow these steps to create your plan:

  1. Write down the primary factor that is generating physical tension somewhere in your body. (Example: I notice more neck tension when working on the computer for long periods of time without a break.)
  2. What is one action you can take this week to reduce that stress? (Example: I will set at time to remind me to get up and move regularly throughout the day for a few minutes.)
  3. How will you feel when you accomplish this goal? (Example: I will feel more focused when I’m at my desk and more relaxed.)

Between now and the next post, be more aware of how your body is feeling and what it is saying to you. Is it telling you to take a break, to get some rest, to drink more water? Getting to know the ways your body communicates to you in support of your wellbeing can help you to feel more well.

Stay tuned for part three of this blog series where we focus on moving From Tension to Flow: In the Mind.

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