Learn more about tension and the role of stress in our experience of tension.
Tension, as it relates to our psychological experiences, can be defined as a state that is associated with conflict, dissonance, instability, or uncertainty. Psychological tension also creates a desire for resolution and feelings of expectation, anticipation, or prediction concerning future events that are potentially emotionally impactful (Lehne & Koelsch, 2015).
Tension is typically experienced in our bodies as tightness or stiffness in our muscles. This kind of tension can be quite painful and can sometimes severely restrict your ability to move. Tense muscles may be tender to the touch and feel like a chronic cramp or spasm.
Tension is a characteristic present in a variety of physical and emotional experiences. Here are a few examples of where we might observe tension:
Tension and resolution in music, film, and literature
Balance of opposing forces created in visual art
Interpersonal conflict or hostility
Experience of conflicting desires within ourselves
Neck and shoulder pain
Anticipating an emotionally impactful event
The Role of Stress
Our fears and anxieties don’t just occur in our minds, they are expressed throughout our bodies as well. When we are stressed, the branch of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is the physiological component of our fight or flight response. That is, our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing our bodies for action when we feel as though we are in danger.
Part of this preparation is the release of a neurotransmitter, called acetylcholine, which is responsible for making our muscles contract. Thus, when we are stressed out, our bodies interpret that stress as danger and activate our sympathetic nervous system, which promotes the release of acetylcholine, and ultimately leads to the contraction of muscles, even when we don’t want it to.
Research has shown that stress-induced muscle contractions, or muscle tension, are especially prominent in the face, neck, and shoulders (Bansevicius et al., 1997; Glaros et al., 2016). You might notice this effect if you clench your jaw or raise your shoulders when you are stressed. However, stress-induced muscle tension can occur throughout your body and isn’t necessarily localized to your head, neck, and shoulders.
Tips To Reduce Tension
Because tension lives in our bodies, even when it’s born in our minds, the best way to reduce tension is through processes of physical relaxation. Anything that makes you feel relaxed could help, such as a walk with your dog, a conversation with a dear friend, or a cup of hot cocoa. In addition to the methods of relaxation that you know to be effective for you, there are multiple scientifically supported, non-pharmacological methods for achieving tension reduction through physical relaxation including Progressive Muscle Relaxation, yoga, heat therapy, cold therapy, and massage.
Reduce Tension With Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One of the most common and most scientifically supported methods of tension reduction is a practice called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves the conscious tightening and releasing of muscles throughout your body. Studies have shown that even a brief Progressive Muscle Relaxation intervention can help reduce psychological stress and tension (Dolbier & Rush, 2012).
The process of Progressive Muscle Relaxation typically goes like this:
Start in a comfortable position, lying flat on your back if possible.
Focus first on your feet and contract every muscle in your feet with as much force as possible.
Hold for a few seconds, then release.
Focus next on your calves and contract your calf muscles with as much force as possible.
Hold for a few seconds, then release
Repeat this process for each muscle group as your focus travels from your feet to your head.
Reduce Tension With Yoga
Gentle exercise and stretching can also be effective treatments for muscle tension. Yoga, for example, is a great way to combine both light exercise and stretching.
Reduce Tension With Heat Therapy
Heat promotes increased blood flow, metabolism, and elasticity of connective tissue. Increased blood flow and metabolism are thought to help with pain relief by accelerating the breakdown of pain-inducing toxins in the muscles and the distribution of nutrients our muscles need to heal (Tepperman & Devlin, 1986). Increased elasticity improves range of motion and decreases the feeling of stiffness. It’s important to be cautious about using heat therapy if you have multiple sclerosis, poor circulation, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and arthritis because heat can contribute to disease progression and increased inflammation or could cause burns (Malanga et al., 2015). If you are unsure if heat therapy may be right for you, talking with your doctor is always a good idea.
Reduce Tension With Cold Therapy
While heat therapy is effective in promoting healing, cold therapy has been shown to be effective in temporary pain relief. Cold leads to a decrease in inflammation and reduces the speed at which nerve fibers from your muscles can send pain signals to your brain (Tepperman & Devlin, 1986).
Reduce Tension With Massage Therapy
Massage involves the application of pressure to the soft muscle tissue which causes an involuntary relaxation response. The relaxation response decreases activation of the sympathetic nervous system which results in a reduction in blood pressure and stress hormones. In other words, it decreases the physical effects of stress. Massage also promotes blood flow, circulation of lymphatic fluid, and the release of deep connective tissues, which reduces painful contractions and spasms (Yates, 2004).
Tension is a common experience that can range from uncomfortable to debilitating. It is important to remember that our emotions live in our bodies, so even when we manage to ease the pain of muscle tension, we are still prone to experiencing more episodes of tension if we don’t manage our stressors. Because tension seems to exacerbate stress, easing the physical effects of tension is an important step in managing our stress, but it isn’t the only course of action. Truly finding lasting relief requires tending to both our bodies and our minds.
Bansevicius, D., Westgaard, R. H., & Jensen, C. (1997). Mental stress of long duration: EMG activity, perceived tension, fatigue, and pain development in pain‐free subjects. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 37(8), 499-510.
Dolbier, C. L., & Rush, T. E. (2012). Efficacy of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation in a high-stress college sample. International Journal of Stress Management, 19(1), 48.
Glaros, A. G., Marszalek, J. M., & Williams, K. B. (2016). Longitudinal multilevel modeling of facial pain, muscle tension, and stress. Journal of dental research, 95(4), 416-422.
Lehne, M., & Koelsch, S. (2015). Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 79.
Malanga, G. A., Yan, N., & Stark, J. (2015). Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. Postgraduate medicine, 127(1), 57-65.
Tepperman, P. S., & Devlin, M. (1986). The therapeutic use of local heat and cold. Canadian Family Physician, 32, 1110.
Yates, John. (2004). A Physician's Guide to Therapeutic Massage, Third Edition. Ontario, Canada: Curties-Overzet Publications, Inc.