When I was 12 years old, I had mononucleosis and hepatitis, and I had to have blood drawn practically every week for months. I have tiny veins, and it’s always been difficult for nurses to access them. They’d wind up using a painful procedure called fishing, which involves poking the needle in and spinning it until it makes contact with the vein. In addition to a lot of black-and-blue marks, I wound up with loads of anxiety about needles that persisted into adulthood.
Several years ago, I had an early-morning appointment to get my annual blood work done. I had to drop my son William off at school and go straight to the lab. Morning is not what I consider our most “graceful” time, and on this particular morning, besides our regular struggle of getting up and out the door, William and I had gotten into a bit of a tiff. When I arrived at the lab, I was irritable and stressed.
The nurse started looking for my vein and I could feel myself tensing up. “Can you please use the butterfly needle and can you use this vein?” I asked, pointing to a spot that had worked in the past.
She inserted the needle where I’d instructed. Nothing happened. She was in the vein, but no blood was coming out. I felt myself getting even more anxious than I already was, worrying that this blood draw was going to end up like every other one—prolonged and painful.
I expected the nurse to start fishing, but she didn’t. Unlike the nurses of my childhood, she did not seem to be worried about how much time this might take. She just sat with me, looking into my eyes with a serene, benevolent smile. “Honey, relax,” she said to me (the yoga teacher!). “Take a deep breath.”
Her sweetness calmed me. I took a few breaths and ultimately filled three vials.
Normally, when a needle enters a vein, blood flows immediately. But when we are stressed, our muscles contract and many of our systems are compromised. I was so bound up emotionally that morning, the tension in my body affected my blood flow.
In my experience, muscle tension is different from muscle tightness. Tightness is when you use a muscle in some way and it doesn’t return to its resting length, say from exercising or gardening or moving heavy furniture. Tension usually contains a psychological or emotional component. Tension can be long-standing and result from something physical, like the way we try to protect ourselves from a past injury. Or it might accumulate as a result of an old hurt—the way we may slouch because we were made fun of in third grade. Maybe it’s something we carry from living in a house where parents were always fighting or from living in a country that’s in constant strife.
Hunched shoulders, fisted hands, protruding chests, jutting chins, and even collapsed posture can be indicators that somewhere in our past we felt threatened and built layers of muscular tension as a defense.
But tension can also arise from something new, like getting into a fight with someone we love or caring for someone who is ill. Our body is responding to feeling provoked or overwhelmed, to feeling left out or unloved. Tension is the way we store what we don’t want to feel, and it’s also the way we shield ourselves from what we don’t want to take in.
We feel threatened, so we harden.
Whether we’re carrying emotions from our past or emotions from this morning, whether we’re feeling pushed into the future or pulled into the past, whether we’re reacting to dangerous road conditions or receiving tough news from a doctor, if our nervous system is triggered regularly and our stress hormones don’t have the chance to dissipate quickly enough to return to a calm state, we can end up with tension.
We all harden ourselves,
every single day.
We may not know it as it’s happening,
but we will undoubtedly experience its effects.
Tension is the stress response
finding a home in our body.
The Tension Story
Living with tension is like getting dressed to go to a party in clothes that are two sizes too small. Everything feels constricted. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but if I’m wearing something even one size too small, I feel annoyed and grumpy. It’s hard to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m at this party with all the people I really want to spend time with, and I can’t pay attention to them. In fact, I can’t pay attention to much of anything except my own discomfort.
Yet these “too-tight clothes” are what we’re wearing every day. We live in them. In fact, most of us even sleep in them. This is not an exaggeration. Before I learned how to relax deeply, I could go a whole night without ever giving my full weight to my mattress. I’d be lying down, but at the same time I was holding myself off the bed.
Throughout the day, we hold ourselves in a constant state of alertness, as if we don’t believe that whatever is underneath us is truly supporting us. We do not feel at ease in our body, and we compensate for that in ways that are so automatic they’ve become our “normal.”
The way we hold ourselves,
and the armor we engage
keep us separate, hard,
and unable to release into the support
available to us.