Ever get stress knots in your body? I do! In fact, I just had a really nasty one that took almost a week to unwind, and body awareness played a big role in the process. The experience renewed my respect for the profound relationship that exists between my body and stress. More specifically, it made me revisit how body awareness can work with my built-in stress relaxation system to both prevent and dissolve stress knots in my body.
What exactly do I mean by stress knots? I’m talking about that nasty crick in your neck that just won’t go away. The painful, rock-hard muscle in your shoulder or low back. Maybe recurring tension headaches or a clenching in your jaw. These symptoms can be signs of stress manifesting through your body. I call them stress knots, and once they’ve taken hold, it can be really hard to untie them.
When it comes to stress relaxation, body awareness is an incredibly valuable (and often overlooked) tool. Not only can it facilitate the dissolving of stress knots already formed, but it can help prevent future ones from setting in. Whether we’re seeking treatment from a chiropractor or massage therapist, or trying to work out the knot on our own, body awareness helps us understand what’s happening in our body, so we can let go to the process of healing.
The Stress Blind Spot
I consider myself pretty adept when it comes to managing stress. Being grounded and centered is my baseline response, even when life gets wonky. I do yoga, meditate, and generally approach life with a mindful presence that helps me stay calm and find joy in the little things. It’s a delightful way to live, and I wouldn’t change any of it.
But I’m realizing this view of myself – maybe even expectation of myself – can cast a long shadow that leaves a chunk of my inner experience hidden in the dark. Consciously choosing and identifying with a peaceful, accepting nature can sometimes blind me to the ways stress and emotions are lingering in my system. And when that happens, the residue gets stored in my body in the form of painful stress knots.
Wherever you lie on the stress spectrum – from tending toward a peace-at-all-cost disposition like me, to identifying fully with a more stressed demeanor – we all store stress in our body. And it’s important for us to develop awareness of what this process looks like for us, individually. Because it’s when we fail to notice the subtler signals of stress taking hold in our body that we end up with tightly wound knots screaming for our attention.
If we’ve got a blind spot around our stress, listening to our body can shed light on what’s really happening internally for us. It can tell us what we’ve been avoiding or downplaying, so we can release the stress we’re holding, and take steps to shift the stressful dynamic however we can. We can’t effectively manage what we can’t clearly see (or in this case, feel.)
Stress Lives in Your Body
While stress begins in your mind, it can take up residence in your body. Especially when you ignore it and just keep pushing through. When we’re presented with a challenging or threatening situation, an automatic reaction amps up production of our stress-response chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals flood our body, giving us the energy we need to react quickly and efficiently to protect ourselves.
This, of course, is a good thing. When everything’s working ideally, we respond to the stress-inducing circumstance in a helpful way. And once our problem’s solved, our parasympathetic nervous system steps-in to calm us back down and return our system to balance and rest. When you think about it, that’s pretty amazing. We have a built-in stress relaxation system. And it’s designed to automatically balance our stress response system.
However, it doesn’t always work so neatly. When our stress response doesn’t turn off, or it’s activated frequently without an end-result to shut it down, the body gets stuck in stress response mode. Our muscles stay tensed. Our heart rate remains elevated. And our breath moves faster and more shallowly than it needs to. Over time, even if these physical manifestations remain low-grade, the body will begin to suffer from this taxing of its systems.
Breakdown of the Stress Relaxation System
The stress response is meant to be a temporary state. It’s supposed to draw excessively on your body’s resources for a limited amount of time in order to produce a targeted result. Once that result is attained, your body should be allowed to return to its original, non-stressed state. This gives it time to recover and allows it to focus on other functions that maintain your health.
But this doesn’t always happen. All too often, stress responses linger, triggered by your thoughts or emotions about the situation. Other times, there’s no clear resolution to the stress-producing situation, so it continues to apply pressure. Or, maybe a pattern of staying in stress response mode has been adapted over time, due to repeated or prolonged exposure to stress.
Whatever the reason, if you don’t return to a fully relaxed state, stress lives on in your body. And your body starts sending you signals to communicate something’s not right. Enter painful muscle spasms, throbbing headaches, restlessness, and tightness. The discomfort from these symptoms can even trigger more stress, further aggravating the situation.
What Happens When Stress is Stuffed
Sometimes we fail to acknowledge our stress at all. Something happens that triggers our fight-or-flight response, and we choose the flight option. Only, we don’t actually escape the situation. We just ignore it, downplay it, or otherwise fail to recognize its impact on us. When we do this, our entire stress response happens beneath the radar of our awareness.
It doesn’t just go away because we don’t want to feel it, or admit that we’re feeling it. We can think and speak positively. We can continue living life in as ordinary a way as possible, but deep down we know the stress still lingers. And our body does too. It responds to it, whether or not we’re registering that response.
Stuffing can be especially unhealthy, because it often means it takes much longer for us to do what we need to do to shift our body back into a state of non-stress. The body has to get louder and louder before we answer its distress signals. (This, by the way, is exactly what happened to me recently.)
What Happens When We Don’t Release Our Stress Response
Animals have a pretty effective way of dealing with the bodily residues of their stress responses. After a chase or life-threatening event, they instinctively shake to release the excess charge of energy the adrenaline and cortisol has pushed through their system. Once they’re safe, this trembling instinct returns their system to homeostasis.
However, with humans, it’s more complicated. We don’t act purely out of instinct. We can think about what happened long after it’s passed and continue to have a stress response to our thoughts and emotions. Additionally, social conditioning asks us to keep our cool under pressure. We’ve been trained to subdue our stress responses, instead of giving them expression. This often translates into simply stuffing them. In fact, we can become so adept at stuffing our stress responses earlier and earlier in the process that, eventually, we don’t acknowledge them happening at all.
Or, we might do something to distract or calm ourselves. Because we feel some relief, we assume we’ve truly let it go. But if we were paying attention to what’s happening in our body, we could observe the telltale signs of stress response still with us – increased heart rate, tensed muscles, and/or shallower breath.
When we don’t release this stress response, the excess energy from our fight-or-flight reaction has nowhere to go, no way to resolve itself. It gets trapped in our body.
Your Body Has a Storehouse for Your Stress
If you don’t release this excess stress-response energy, it free-floats through your system. And eventually, it lodges itself in your body’s go-to storehouse for this energy. By that I mean, the energy gets stuck in your muscles, causing them to contract in little pulses (spasms) or just stay constricted and tight.
Wherever you tend to feel stress the most in your body is your storehouse for this energy. It’s the part(s) of your body most impacted by your prolonged stress responses, and therefore it becomes your body’s way of communicating there’s something amiss. For some people, this tends to be the neck and shoulder area. For others, the head, jaw, or back.
My stress lives in my left shoulder. And when it’s really agitated, it creeps up into the left side of my neck and down my back to a trigger point just behind my left shoulder blade. When I’ve let it go too long, it even crawls into my left jaw and starts producing terrible headaches. Once it gets that bad, it takes a lot to untie the knots and return to a relaxed state. That’s because my body’s established a new normal. Muscle memory has now formed around this tensed pattern of holding.
Gaining Insight Around How Stress Lives in Your Body
You probably already know where you tend to hold stress in your body. If not, just consider what your most common physical ailment(s) is. Of course, here I’m not talking about a physical discomfort that’s connected to another medical condition. But rather, the aches or other pronounced discomforts that can’t be explained by an illness or injury. The tensions that seem to come back and get heightened during times of stress.
Observing this part(s) of your body closely can reveal much about how you carry stress. It can tell you what movement your body’s trying to make, or the position it’s trying to hold, instinctively. If you’ve got a blind spot around your stress, listening to your body’s wisdom can bring the root cause of your stress from the hidden realm of your subconscious into the light of conscious awareness. And, close observation can help you recognize how your different body parts are interacting with each other (along with your heart rate and your breath) to hold onto your stress response instead of releasing it.
For example, in my case, I’ve learned stress starts showing up as a hunching in my left shoulder. It’s a tendency I have to draw that shoulder up and forward, and I’ve come to understand it as a gesture of self-protection. It’s as though I’m trying to shield or brace myself against whatever’s causing my stress. I’m subconsciously protecting my heart.
I also know that over time, this holding creates a complex reaction that causes different muscles and connective tissues in the region to stay contracted and tense. And that my breath comes more shallowly when I’m holding myself this way, creating a feedback loop between my breath and my muscles that reinforces the whole pattern.
It’s a twisted knot indeed!
If you’re presently feeling stress, take some time to sit with awareness of the part of your body that tends to hold it. Close your eyes and just notice all the sensations you feel there with a sense of curiosity. (Not trying to change anything, but just gathering information.) Observe any other body parts that might be impacted as well, especially those that are connected or nearby. How are these different parts of your body interacting with each other? Notice the quality of your breath too. Is it deep and slow, or shallow and quick? How does your breath seem to be interacting with your body?
If you’re not feeling stress in your body presently, take some time to notice what that feels like. What does it feel like to be in homeostasis? How do you hold your body? How does your go-to storehouse for stress feel when it’s not stressed? Notice the pace and depth of your breath too. When you know what your body feels like in a truly relaxed state, it’s easier to register stress signals when they do arise.
Listening to Your Body’s Wisdom
If your body has tied itself into a knot with stress, it has something to say. At the very least, it’s asking you to pay attention to it and help it. But your body can communicate so much more than that too. It can offer insight into why you’re feeling so stressed, if you’re not clear on that. It can offer awareness around patterns of holding in your life, both physical and psychological. And, if you’re a really good listener, it can even point you toward potential solutions.
Now, of course, none of this can be communicated in a traditional sense. But when you sit with heightened curiosity and awareness of what’s happening in your body, the mind-body connection becomes more refined. This connection is a symbiotic relationship, which means the body and mind influence and communicate with each other. Information flows in both directions. Your body’s wisdom will find a way to present itself to your mind.
Your body can help your mind become more consciously aware of what might be working beneath the surface of your everyday thoughts, choices, reactions, etc. It holds many of your tendencies in its muscle memory, which means it carries rich insight around the patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that contributed to those memories. Because stress, and especially a stress knot, is a mind-body phenomenon, accessing this wisdom can be incredibly beneficial for stress relaxation.
Case in Point…
If you’re not already familiar with listening to your body’s wisdom, understanding how this works can seem foreign at first. So I offer my recent experience as an illustration. When I observed the stress knot in my left shoulder with curiosity and an openness to hearing what it had to tell me, I was able to observe all the things I noted previously. My tendency to hunch my shoulder. My shallowness of breath. All the different muscles entangled in the knot. And this was all helpful, mostly from a physical perspective.
But the most useful insight came from a vision of sorts. I had my left hand on the floor and was stretching my head over to my right shoulder. This elongated the muscles along the top of my left shoulder and the side of my neck, giving me a heightened awareness of the sensations around my stress knot. I was exploring these sensations with a desire to understand what was happening, when it suddenly occurred to me it felt like my hand was chained to the floor. I felt like the left side of my body was being pulled down, and the chain was keeping me from breaking free.
This metaphor gave me clarity. Without having to think about it, I knew what the chain was. I knew I hadn’t fully released some significant stress and emotional pain from relatively recent events, and it was binding me. Even though my big, noticeable stress response had faded, it hadn’t truly resolved. This left me me with a sense I still needed to protect myself. Hence, the hunching forward to guard my heart.
And when I sat with all this a little longer, I realized why this energy had gotten stuck within me. I hadn’t fully vocalized myself. To keep peace, I’d shut up instead of speaking my truth.
Remarkably, as I completed this exploration, the pain and tightness in my shoulder dissolved by about 70%, without any further steps taken. I had heard what my body was trying to tell me, and my body took a sigh of relief. But I’d found a solution in there too. I realized I needed to adequately vocalize myself to shift both my internal and external dynamic. And when I followed through on this, I felt another 20% relief. The remaining 10% would come over a period of days, as I actively retrained my muscles to release instead of hold, the opposite of what my new normal had become.
What Is Your Stress Knot Trying to Tell You?
We all hold stress in our body in different ways and for different reasons. And the ways our bodies communicate their wisdom vary greatly too. The wisdom is there, though, for all of us. We just have to tune-in to access it.
One of the best ways to gain insight around your holding of stress is to pay attention to what movement or position your muscles tend toward when they tense up. That’s because this movement or position is likely how your body’s instinctively trying to respond to the source of your stress. In my case, it was to protect my heart.
If you’re holding stress in your head, you might notice your brows furrowing, perhaps from an inclination to overthink. Tightness in your back might involve a posture imbalance. Maybe you’re leaning forward, instinctively trying to charge ahead and tackle problems, or conversely, wanting to flee. You might find clenching in your jaw relates to a tendency to stuff your words instead of speaking up.
These are just examples. The body’s wisdom is truly too unique for each individual to generalize. But when you listen to it, you bring the whole process of holding into conscious awareness. As you recognize how and why you’re holding tension where you do, you can offer your body an alternative.
Place your body in a stretching position that heightens your awareness of your stress knot. Keep in mind, you don’t want to exacerbate it or cause injury, so don’t push yourself beyond your edge. The intention here is just to really feel sensations in this part of your body, so you can explore what’s happening. You should be able to stay at this edge without significant discomfort. (If at any point it feels like too much, come out of the stretch.)
Notice physical sensations, as described earlier, but also open awareness to any emotions or thoughts that might come up. Ask your stress knot what it wants to tell you. Be patient and kind with yourself as you await your answer. Whatever arises – memories, visions, metaphors, thoughts, emotions, etc. – explore it a little. What does it mean to you? How does it relate to what’s happening in your body and more generally in your life? How can you translate all of this into taking loving care of yourself?
Shifting Into Stress Relaxation Mode
Once you’ve gained awareness around your stress knot, you can give your body what it needs to relax the stress. Maybe you need to vocalize yourself, as I did. Maybe you need to get all of your thoughts out on paper in a journal, so you don’t have to keep over-thinking. Perhaps a vacation, a day of pure leisure, or setting boundaries around your work load is in order. Whatever solution presents itself to you as you’re accessing your body’s wisdom, follow through with it. Even if it’s just a mini-step. Taking that step will send a powerful message throughout your entire system that says, things are okay. I don’t have to be in stress response mode anymore.
Then, introduce some practices that voluntarily activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). One of the best ways to do this is the simple practice of diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing deeply into your belly, instead of just your chest, stimulates your vagus nerve and the PNS. And extending your exhale a little longer than your inhale enhances this effect. Contemplative practices that use this kind of breathing offer the added layer of attention-control, which can support stress relief and emotion regulation over time. Examples include restorative yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation.
Loving-Kindness meditation can be an especially beneficial practice when your stress is tied to a relationship. That’s because it opens your heart and cultivates compassion, both for yourself and whomever you’re at odds with. This produces an opposite reaction to the fight-or-flight response, which tends to close us off with defensiveness.
When your system as a whole relaxes, your stress knot stops receiving signals that tell it to stay in stress response mode.
Releasing & Retraining Your Stress Knot
If your stress knot is wound tightly enough, you may need professional help to find full release. Thankfully, my husband’s a chiropractor, so he was able to adjust me and give me some trigger point therapy in-house. But it’s important to note, he couldn’t get my body to budge before I’d taken all the steps I just described. I was locked.
A chiropractor and/or massage therapist can definitely bring relief to stress knots. But we have to do our part too. Otherwise, our muscle memory keeps pulling our spine out of alignment or tensing our muscles back up again. The work we do with body awareness and our built-in stress relaxation system facilitates the work they’re doing, so the whole process takes less time. And the results last longer.
Stress Knot Techniques
If you’re working out your stress knot on your own, the following techniques can be used. (Disclaimer: these are things that worked for me, and I share them here as such. They should not be construed as professional or medical advice or to replace advice or treatment from your health care professionals.)
- Hot pack
- Targeted Stretching (I stretched my neck and shoulder several times a day to gradually retrain the muscles to elongate and let go of the holding pattern.)
- Whole Body Stretching (I did gentle, restorative yoga once a day to make sure all the muscles in my body relaxed. This helped relieve any postural pulling or connective tissue resistance from other parts of my body.)
- Continued body awareness & diaphragmatic breathing. (Every time I noticed my shoulder drawing up and forward, I engaged in diaphragmatic breathing to activate my stress relaxation system. This signaled the muscles in my stress knot to relax.)
It took a few days of doing these techniques for my knot to relax fully into homeostasis and stay there.
Preventing Future Stress Knots
This is the stage I’m in now, and after what I just went through, I’m all about prevention. Body awareness becomes even more important here. As I mentioned before, I generally make a practice of doing activities that help me manage stress effectively. I exercise, do yoga, and meditate regularly. Because of this, I don’t tend to feel stressed-out.
However, this stress-knot episode showed me I have a tendency toward holding the bigger stresses when they arise. And worse, not fully recognizing when I’m doing so. For me to prevent another big knot, I need to be more intentionally observant of my body when big stress comes into my life. Whether this is also true for you, or you have a different pattern for holding stress in your body, paying attention to signs of stress can help us do what we need to do to release it. So it doesn’t build-up over time.
When a surge of adrenaline and cortisol rushes through our body, we get that charge of energy we talked about earlier. Once the immediate stress response has passed, it’s important we take inventory of our body. If there’s still a bunch of unused energy, we need to release it. Just like animals shaking their way back to homeostasis. We can do this by moving our bodies somehow – walking, running, or bike riding.
It’s also important to notice the subtler signs of excess energy that might linger – shallower breath, tightness in our muscles, elevated heart rate. We can focus on diaphragmatic breathing and/or use one of the contemplative practices mentioned earlier to activate our PNS. As we continue to monitor our body’s stress responses, we can keep giving ourselves stress relaxation techniques until we’ve truly returned to rest and calm.
Finally, checking-in with our body’s storehouse for stress can help us recognize if it’s beginning to engage in its usual pattern for holding. If so, we can stretch it or otherwise relax it. And, we have the opportunity to explore why it’s feeling the need to stay in stress-response mode. Is our problem not yet resolved? Are we ruminating over the memory of it, making our body feel the need to continue to respond? What can we do to help ourselves feel safer and more at ease?
It’s so much easier and less painful to let go of our stress response when it hasn’t really taken hold in our body yet.
There is more wisdom in your body than your deepest philosophy.Friedrich Nietzsche
It awes me to witness the profound connection between the body and the mind. How the body carries so much of our subconscious experience in its mass, and even more so, how it holds the wisdom it needs to heal us. Listening to our body is an act of self-love. The more we honor what our body wants to tell us, the more we come to trust our inner wisdom and our commitment to taking good care of ourselves.