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  • Writer's pictureRachel Esbjornson

The Link Between Emotional Stress and Muscle Tension

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the role that stress plays in a person’s overall health and wellbeing this last week as I’ve been reading Farmacology by Daphne Miller, M.D. While this book is more broadly about the connections between how we care for our bodies and how we grow food, the section I’m reading is about the health risks of long-term stress. While stress is not inherently a bad thing, too much stress has implications for both our mental and physical health and wellbeing. One of my PT friends will often say that too much exercise induced “stress” results in tissue injury, but too little exercise induced “stress” results in tissue atrophy, and that we can extend this concept into the emotional and psychological realms of life. I love this metaphor and find it a helpful one when thinking about what a healthy balance of “good” and “bad” stress looks like in my own life.

From a massage perspective, too much ongoing emotional stress has a significant impact on body tension. While tension in the body can be a result of posture, repetitive movement patterns, and injury, it can often be the result of emotional stress. When we experience stress in our lives, the muscles in our body tense up as a way of guarding against injury or pain. You’ve probably noticed that you hold emotional stress in a particular part of your body more than others. Some people clench their jaw more, which can manifest in TMJ pain; others’ shoulders tense up and rise closer to their ears, resulting in neck pain or tension headaches; and for others, too much stress may manifest in tension flaring up in an area of the body that was injured in the past. Ongoing tension in the body from emotional stress also results in a constriction of the blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the muscles. When this occurs, metabolic waste starts to build up in muscles which can contribute to even more pain and tenderness in the parts of your body that respond most to emotional stress.

A few months ago I did a week-long meditation retreat. As a bodyworker, one of the most fascinating parts of this week was when my mind started to settle and I could watch the link between mind tension and body tension. The periods of time my mind was more agitated, my shoulders, hips, and back felt more discomfort. The periods of time my mind was more at ease, my body felt very little pain, tension, or discomfort. It was a good reminder of why relaxation techniques are just as important as deep tissue or specific treatment work in addressing body tension during a massage.

The reason I practice an integrative form of massage, where I blend both treatment and relaxation techniques, is because of the link between emotional stress and body tension. When your nervous system is not able to relax, then it is harder to get areas of tension in the muscles or fascia to release. Relaxation techniques also increase blood flow and circulation, which help to flush out the metabolic waste that can build up due to muscle tension and the constriction of blood vessels. I also structure my practice so that the intake process is not included in the time of the massage. This is because I want you to feel relaxed when you come in and so we can determine together what type of session meets your body’s needs that day. For some massages you may need the session to tilt more towards relaxation, other times more towards treatment work, or at other times it might be a more even balance between the two.

Not only can massage ease your body out of a place of emotional stress and the accompanying muscular tension, but it can also be a good preventative practice. Research indicates that regular body work can help ease the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Long story short is that massage is a great self-care approach to addressing stress and the accompanying muscle tension!

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