November 21, 2013


Where does tension come from?

Today’s blog was inspired by recent correspondence. This is how it emerged; my comments are the plain text; hers are the indented blocks of text:

In an email about pain in her body, caused doubtlessly by tension, she wrote:

I then started my career where my first two employers so far have been extremely unfair and I have had to share cramped office spaces with several disgruntled employees who constantly interrupt. Now, since I’m not sure you know how this affects a developer: let’s just say distracting a developer constantly is like the worst type of brain torture and is extremely stressful. One has to constantly try to go in and out of flow and attempt to retain tons of information in their head while trying to converse and taking notes about that conversation. This is why most advocate to not interrupt the developer.

Then we spoke about exercise solutions for the tension; she continues:

Since then I’ve had a only had a few tension headaches which I have been able to relieve through self massage. Since I can now feel all my tension I’ve also been working on the rest of my body. I think this is a fairly accurate diagnosis of the problem because I have almost exclusively been doing this. I have not changed any of my other behaviors, and work is still extremely stressful, and the tension still gets worse, while at work, regularly, but is now manageable.

There you go: sound analysis, I’d say, but there is one more piece to the puzzle; below. The correspondent continues:

The main difference now is I have no migraines and am losing weight easily. Way more easily then it has ever been. My personal theory is that the muscle tension caused extreme tension headaches, and this additional nervous system activity combined with high stress caused a lack of seratonin which then would cause my debilitating migraine (dark room, no noise, let me try to sleep).

If you put your body in a situation (externally generated; internally reacted to) that it does not like, it will do its best to shut you down. Self-preservation, that’s all. If it gets extreme enough, the body can actually give up and get terminally ill. There is a decent literature on this. This literature began with the still-relevant Stress of Life, by Hans Selye, a brilliant thinker and researcher. The Stress of Life, published in 1953, started the longest-lasting (still in force) revision of Western medicine. This book is referenced in all my publications.

Now, back to working on the true source of all my problems :), stress and unfair treatment.

If you have not cultivated a relaxation habit (activities that foster the direct experience of being deeply relaxed while you are awake) you are missing THE most important attribute that a person in the modern work environment can have.

I want to elaborate on this point today. Assuming that Darwinian evolution is an accurate description of how species evolve over time and in relation to their changing environments, then it is time to consider how the relaxation response might benefit the modern human. Up until this time the fight or flight response was what gave individuals within a species a competitive reproductive advantage. It has been argued in many places that our own species’ capacity to rapidly manifest the flight or fight syndrome is what has led to the industrial revolution and the destruction of our planet, but I digress. Fight or flight’s time is over, however, except in personal emergency situations where you will have no control over it anyway: it will simply manifest.

The fight or flight response can give rise to anger and many other powerful emotions, which these days have to be subsumed back into the body that gave rise to them rather than be expressed. This swallowing, or repressing, of these desires may give rise to a variety of illnesses, too, over time.

No longer is it desirable to assault one’s boss (no matter how wilful or stupid he or she may be) or to go on a anger fuelled rampage, no matter how good it might feel at the time. No, the parasympathetic nervous system’s opposite response, described by Benson as The Relaxation Response in his small gem of a book by the same name, is now the most desirable adaptation we can display in the modern workforce. Following the Darwinian metaphor, we might say that the capacity to manifest the relaxation response in the workplace will confirm a similar competitive advantage at the individual level of analysis.

What is more futile than someone telling you to relax though? Much more likely is the opposite response! What I have learned however is that if you have had a sufficiently large number of repetitions of the experience of being relaxed, the option to recreate it at will in your body/mind whenever you need it is there. Repetition is required, however, like all habits. Further, there is a key to actually accessing this:

The easiest way to elicit this response at stressful times is to drop the awareness into the lower abdomen, take a deep breaths into that place and, as you breathe out, let your shoulders drop, let the throat relax too, and let that feeling of relaxation be experienced by the whole of the body.

If you can do this in stressful moments then you may be able to pivot; that is, instead of your body and mind moving into your personal reflexive pattern of behaviour when stressed (anger, frustration, depression, etc.) you may be able to choose a different behaviour.

To this end, I have recorded a number of lying relaxation scripts, found HERE.

Use any of these scripts as a daily practise for at least a couple of months; together with the stretching and self-massage, you will be a different person in six months—and what stresses you now may very well not stress you in the future. Any stressor’s reception in the body/mind is unique—what stresses me might be water off a duck’s back to you, yet the external event may be identical. This demonstrates that the stress reaction is individually constructed.

I am highlighting this aspect, because when faced with a stressor, the mind will automatically reach out and blame the stressor, usually adding a self-justifying reinforcing argument: this (my anger) is the fault of the stressor—how do I know this? Because if the stressor were not present, I would not be angry (or whatever your reflexive pattern is). This is a lie.

Here is an example (and referring to what you write above) there is no such thing as unfair treatment. There is only the idea of unfair treatment, excepting all-out assault, covered above. This might seem ridiculous, but bear with me for a moment. People will simply behave the way they behave and the only choice you have in these moments is how you react to that behaviour. You will never be able to change someone else’s behaviour, either, and directing any energy in this direction is a waste of a valuable resource. If, at a deep level, you think/feel this behaviour is unfair or wrong or shouldn’t be happening then you’re not accepting the reality unfolding in front of you. That is precisely what causes this reaction in your body. Stress is simply resistance to what is actually happening.

‘Stress’ manifests as muscular tension and as disturbance to the tranquility of the mind, in addition to the well-documented flooding of the system with corticosteroids, heavily documented in the literature on stress.

There is a further dimension which might be helpful. You write below about stupidity; contrary to what you think, people are actually doing the best that they can, even though their behaviour might be appalling. In my experience very rarely is there any malice in stupidity. And, most importantly, their behaviour actually says nothing about you.

There is no such thing as having no choice; the mind usually separate options into only two when in fact there are always many. I will elaborate on this aspect in another piece; it’s enough to say presently that the mind’s fundamental act is to cut reality in half: the half it wants and the half it doesn’t. The simplistic binary perspectives that plague public life are the evidence: the vast majority of disputes are positioned as choices between this and that; never is this perspective either exhaustive or accurate.

Speaking more generally, a teacher I worked with once helped me very much when he explained that we have little choice about the large-scale things that happen in our lives; but we have any amount of choice in what we decide about how we react to them. This latter aspect is really what free will is all about. If, like most people, there is no capacity to choose how to react in the moment, but instead we simply react reflexively in most situations, then we have no choice at all. This is life for most people.

Comments/disagreements/refutations most welcome.

Addendum, an attempt to frame a different way

Here’s a thought experiment: you and a friend are out and about. Something happens and you are both witness to it; the exact same thing/factor in the environment. She is annoyed by it, though, and you are unmoved by exactly the same thing, and you wonder why she is annoyed. This happens every day; no one notices the obvious aspect: the reaction is in the individual doing the watching/experiencing. The mind immediately sees the reaction (in her case annoyance) as being caused by the factor in the environment; and this is not accurate. This is the absolute core awakening experience: to see this lie told to us by our minds every day. This 'reaction-being-linked-to-what-is-experienced' is the core of all human suffering.

  • Wonderful article but I feel lost at the end, I would love to see this expounded on a bit as it seems to be something very important to the world

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