I know from personal experience that the tension I unconsciously hold in my muscles is behind the cause of chronic pain, such as pelvic pain, lower back pain and bladder irritation. Chronic tension can lead to fatigue which leads to even more debilitating illness. Understanding what creates muscle tension is the key to unlocking unconscious holding patterns.
It’s All About Protection
Holding tension in muscles is a way of protecting oneself from physical or emotional harm. It’s also a way to hide from ourselves and other people what we’re really feeling, and that might seem too scary to deal with. What begins in childhood as a way to resist feeling uncomfortable emotions and situations can become a life long habit of being. Eventually the muscles get so irritated from the lack of blood flow from being tense so much, that the pain becomes insistent and chronic.
Identifying Protective Devices
In mind-body coaching we refer to these physical patterns of holding muscle tension as “protective devices.” It’s possible to explore protective patterns from the body’s perspective. In working with myself and my clients I’ve learned that protective devices usually start in childhood as survival reactions to difficult or traumatic situations. These patterns become chronic because once the brain learns a way to react to new experiences it repeats it as a way of saving energy by creating a neural pathway, or habit, that takes little attention or effort to execute.
For example, I have a strong habit of resisting feelings emotions. When I shove my emotions rather than feel them, my right leg, right lower abdomen and right lower back become tight, sore, and achy. Often, my chest and the back of my throat feels tight and clogged too. I know from experience that this is a common protective reaction I automatically go to when there are uncomfortable emotions presenting.
Intentionally Create Healthy Protection
What has given me so much relief from chronic pain is to set up my protection in healthier, more conscious ways. The pain pattern reminds me to feel my emotions rather than resist them. However, in order to feel safe in feeling my emotions, I have taken the job of heavy protection off of my muscles by imagining a very strong protective boundary at the edge of my personal space all around me. This gives me personal space inside the protected area to feel emotions, which are “action requiring neurological programs,” orienting me to the information they contain and allowing my muscles to let go of holding because I have stopped resisting and received the messages the emotions contain.
When I feel safe with the protection off my body and in the boundary space around me, I can be who I am in this moment, without hiding from myself, and I can also be protected from other people’s wants, needs, emotions and opinions. I take the original job of the protective device and set that intention for my boundary space which relieves my muscles from having to work so hard to keep me safe, which takes my body out of the fight, flight or freeze response and gives me a lot more space to be me. I don’t have to hold all that emotional energy deep inside my body.
Welcome Discomfort Rather Than Resist It
To lighten your heavy protective load, notice muscle tension or emotional discomfort. Rather than resisting it, welcome it. Focus towards feeling it in your body. Sense what its purpose is, how it’s here to help you and then choose to practice a new way of being present in your body that’s more effective. If you have trouble doing this on your own, hire a mind-body coach to learn how to dialogue with and make new agreements with your protective devices.
When we get clear on what we agree to what we don’t agree to in ourselves and in our relationship to the rest of the world, we can rely on our agreements to help set boundaries. By claiming our personal space it gives us more room to notice and welcome how we are feeling rather than having to hold it hidden inside our bodies. We can channel our natural protective energy in conscious ways rather than getting side-lined by old unconscious ways of being that no longer serve us, thus lightening the load on our bodies.