Tension Relieves Tension: The June Project

Two memories: one, twenty minutes into meditation at a Buddhist temple, thinking, "Jesus, my legs hurt," and two, seeing stars during a session of Christian contemplative prayer. Pulsing, color-changing stars, so fascinating that I knew I was about to either go unconscious or fall over; I opened my eyes and there was the teacher, sitting up but fast asleep.

Meditation, prayer, relaxation--each person holds their own interpretation, but typically, these would involve quiet and calm. If I say I'm stressed, you say take a day off and sit by the lake. If I'm stressed and want to exercise, you say yoga. Indeed, these activities contain qualities that would soothe the maddest of souls; I've always thought that the primary reason people come out of a yoga session feeling wonderful is not due to the downward dog, but to the deep breathing. Who takes the time to breathe fully during a busy day?

But as my memories indicate, I've never been good at traditional calming down. There's an element of attention deficit here, for sure, as evidenced by my behavior during a recent performance of St. Matthew Passion, which will forever threaten to end my marriage. ("I don't need to defend Bach," said my weary husband.) But look at the activities I've chosen as hobbies--boxing, powerlifting--which make you stop and say hmmm. I do a good deal of sitting in a chair looking out the window, but to truly reset myself, I pick up heavy things and put them down.

So when I picked up Babette Rothschild's 8 Keys To Safe Trauma Recovery by chance--the library had set it out as an unpopular pick, about to be thrown out, and I was preparing to moderate a session on writing about trauma--one chapter caught my attention.

Called simply "Get Moving," this section purposed to detail the positive benefits of exercise for trauma recovery. Usually I'd bypass these sections, because as a personal trainer I've heard it all before; it's preaching to the choir for me to read about boosting serotonin, self-confidence, and healthier blood levels. Exercise is all it's cracked up to be, everyone knows as much--trick is, the theories only apply if you actually do it.

But then I read this section:

Muscle tension is an underrated ally. While relaxation can be valuable at times, without muscle tension you would be unable to stand, walk, sit, or hold this book in your hands... Though most people would assume relaxation is the state that helps trauma recovery most, a good portion of traumatized individuals do not do well with relaxation. In a relaxed state, they may actually become more anxious or even panicked.

Rothschild goes on to describe several cases in which the client attempted relaxation techniques but remained paralyzed by anxiety (one woman's symptoms actually worsened). Once she got them lifting weights or even assuming a steadier posture, their lives turned around. "When they were physically stronger," she writes, "they became emotionally stronger, as well."

The mind-body connection has always fascinated me, especially in my theatre practice. Seeing homeless men, in character, stand tall and confident always made me wonder if posture and strength was a key to self-esteem and, in turn, to their own success. Reading The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hangarne, who manages his Tourette Syndrome with kettlebells and heavy lifting, showed yet another winning model.

The examples are endless, but for now, I'd like to delve into this subject through Rothschild's work. Her book The Body Remembers should be arriving here soon, and just in time: my kids and I are embarking on what we call The June Project, in which we take a half hour each day to pursue a goal.

This is mine: to understand how muscle tension can relieve emotional tension. How tension can help us relax--my own little self-assigned dissertation, as it were. Come along on this journey and leave all your worries behind.


  1. This is going to be super cool. I don't care if you don't like Bach.


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