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How To Relieve Tension In The Body (7 Psychophysical Truths!)

How to relieve tension in the body
“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.” (Hans Selye) (Image: Vecteezy)

There’s a refrain my pastor loves to repeat: “It’s easy to love people on a mountain or in a cave.” What he means is that loving people, which is a noble intention, can be difficult to execute amidst the challenges of daily life. Indeed, this is precisely why integrity is so hard. Far from being a form of escapism, it is intimately connected to the mundane aspects of our lives. Mood, emotions, sleep, exercise and daily habits influence spiritual well-being in profound ways. To neglect these things is to neglect what matters most.

Without further ado, my 7 “truths” of stress management, framed as commands, are as follows: 1-) Say goodbye to perfectionism; 2-) Stop being a people-pleaser; 3-) Forgive everyone, including yourself; 4-) Eat a balanced diet; 5-) Do physical activity; 6-) Prioritize connection with others; and 7-) Cultivate a strong spiritual identity.

As we do these things, health improves, compulsions weaken, and better life outcomes ensue. 📈

1. Say goodbye to perfectionism

In The Mindbody Prescription: Healing The Body, Healing The Pain, M.D. John Sarno had this to say about the role perfectionism plays in the generation of tension in the body:

Ben Sorotzkin, a practicing psychologist, suggests that perfectionists unconsciously set up standards for themselves they cannot possibly meet; their inevitable failure to live up to them results in unconscious shame and rage. . . Perfectionism is the predominant personality characteristic in many of my [chronic pain] patients.

Perfectionism leads to chronic psychophysical tension that reduces quality of life and drives people to engage in compulsive behaviors. Perfectionism is out-of-step with integrity because it is a denial of human nature. Let it be known that kissing perfectionism goodbye is one of the best things I ever did.

2. Stop being a people-pleaser

In The Mindbody Prescription: Healing The Body, Healing The Pain, M.D. John Sarno had this to say about the role people-pleasing plays in the generation of tension in the body:

These [people-pleasers]… have a desire to ingratiate, to want everyone to like them… What’s wrong with striving to be perfect and good? Doesn’t that benefit everybody? From a social and interpersonal perspective, it’s wonderful, but it also engenders great internal anger.

The more we are kind or indulgent out of a mere desire to avoid anxiety or a sense of social obligation, the more stress it creates in our minds and bodies. Integrity isn’t just about fulfilling moral obligations; it’s about staying true to ourselves. If we can only do one without the other, then we have room to improve.  

3. Forgive everyone, including yourself

One of the biggest things these scientists found to get your brain to function like the brains of monks who have been meditating for 20 years… It was this one thing: radical forgiveness. (Vishen Lakhiani)

Resentment is like walking around with a weight on one’s chest. And the conscious mind can only experience so much pain at a time. What this means is that pain from the past gets buried in a deep place. Unfortunately, it never leaves the subject alone, but sabotages their lives in subconscious ways. Resentment leads to psychophysical pain, dysfunction, and unhappiness, whereas forgiveness has a calming and healthful effect.  

Eckhart Tolle said that “No one can act beyond their current level of consciousness.” And that includes you and me. We and others have made mistakes in the past, but now we know better and can do better. Forgiveness comes from a place of understanding and compassion. While resentment is backward-looking, forgiveness has an eye toward the future.

4. Eat a balanced diet

I learned this one the hard way, and so I’d be remiss if I left it out. Nutritional deficiencies (iron, B12, Vitamin D, etc.) are known to cause tension and dysfunction in the body. As are nutritional excesses (obesity, excessive sugar intake, fried foods, etc.). Without a balanced diet, it is virtually impossible to live a balanced life. Secularly, it is an axiom. (“You are what you eat.”) In religion, diet is also enshrined as having special importance:

Diet and nutrition influence things like mood, emotions, sleep, and health, all of which impact our ability to love and be loved. There is a reason why God gave the Hebrews so many dietary restrictions in the Old Testament, and modern science evidences the tremendous importance of diet in shaping human outcomes. (Christian Quote #90: Diet And Nutrition)

5. Do physical activity

Not long ago, I had this to say about the therapeutic effect of physical activity on tension, specifically sexual tension:

One thing I have found–and many people I have talked to attest–is that a number of non-sexual activities can blow off some of the steam of sexual desire. Lifting weights, cardio, stretching, massage therapy, etc., are all workable alternatives to release tension carried in the body. (Sexual Versus Sensory Stimulation And Release)

I wasn’t there, but I’m told that our ancestors lived highly active lives, traveling in nature, foraging for food, and living off the land. They didn’t have the technology and luxuries we enjoy today, and so it stands to reason. That said, human biology evolved to excel at physical activity and depend on it in order to thrive. There’s a reason why our backs start to hurt after being sedentary for too long and we begin to experience mental discomfort.

If you are looking to relieve stress with physical activity, stretching is a nice entry-level option.    

6. Prioritize connection with others  

I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. . .  We are hard-wired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. (Brené Brown)

When connection is present, we feel complete, lacking nothing, and our quality of life increases. When connection is absent, we feel incomplete, eager for an escape or quick-fix, and our quality of life suffers.

Connection is a little more nuanced than just willing it into existence, but there is hope. As I wrote about in Relationship is the Antidote To Addiction, “We don’t have total control over the success of a relationship–familial, friendly, romantic, or otherwise–but we can always do our part. Usually, when we do our part well enough and long enough in the area of relationships, things overall will work out in our favor. Whereas when we give no effort and opt out of the process entirely, the outcome is guaranteed to be bad.”

7. Cultivate a strong spiritual identity

As we spend time with Abba, He will cut away places of fear and anxiety, which become idols that demand our worship. Abba challenges us to open our hearts and minds to His, removing these hindrances so He can minister healing to our past brokenness. (Matthew Stevenson)

With no spiritual anchor, we are at the mercy of every trial and trauma of the material world. On the other hand, a spiritual anchor has a grounding effect that calms our minds and supplies meaning to our experiences.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx)

“Religion is the opium of the masses” is often cited as a dismissive critique of religion. People, they say, practice religion to escape from reality, in the manner of a drug. If all religion were untrue, I would share that critical sentiment. However, as person of faith that there is a true religion (better understood in terms of a relationship with God), I actually fancy that quote. Being in relationship with God is like the effect of a drug, and that’s the way it was meant to be.  

how to relieve tension in the body
An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of our lives. I got my B.S. from Georgetown University and my M.A. from The Ohio State University.

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