Winding Up or Winding Down? 6/13

sore.neck.8666161June 2013

My dentist has often accused me of grinding my teeth – and I just didn’t buy it. “How about clenching,” he asked recently? “Oh yeah, I think I do that.” Apparently that explains my receding gums. Mystery solved . . . sort of.

I’ve since noticed many occasions where I tighten my jaw and clench my teeth. Gardening, chopping vegetables, doing my hair . . . really serious stuff!

With my awareness heightened, in all honesty, I’ve noticed my jaw is tight much of the time. Is there a gummy grin in my future?

I’m surely not alone. We all hold tension somewhere in our bodies, which contributes to aches, pains and other ailments, keeping doctors, massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors and many other health practitioners employed. 

Worry, anxiety, conflict, sitting or standing for hours on end, trauma, and suppressed emotions. . . stress in all its forms are at the source of many of the problems in our bodies. Tensing and tightening can become habitual. I know that I am certainly not stressed every moment that my jaw is clenched. But my jaw doesn’t seem to know that!

What if we could be aware of the tightness and tensions as they occur, and relax and release them, avoiding health issues?

During times of stress and anxiety, when your fight or flight system is activated, your muscles are supposed to contract. The contraction is designed to support you when faced with a fearful situation. But when you’re stressed for an extensive period of time your muscles might never leave the contraction phase. Eventually, as you probably know, this tension can cause problems.

Check in with yourself right now. Pay attention to your body and notice where you feel any tightness. Is it your neck? Are your shoulders hunched? How is your back? Is it knotty or nice between your shoulder blades? Are your legs crossed tight? What about your belly? Maybe your tongue is pressed firmly against the roof of your mouth.

Try to release some tension. Focus your attention on one specific part of your body that is uncomfortable. Do it now. Correct your posture. Stretch a muscle if it is contracted. Part your lips if you need to release your jaw. Maybe you need to stand and wiggle your limbs, or lie down to release them. Jumping up and down might cause a shift. Concentrate on the place of discomfort and imagine your breath flowing into the part of your body that is tense and tight. Slow your breathing. Slow your mind. Relax and release.

When you have a little more time, do a full body scan. And I don’t mean the x-ray variety. While there are no hard and fast rules to this, the following are guidelines that will help you to relax and release any tension you might be feeling.

1. Sit or lie down (preferably) in a comfortable position. Take several slow, deep breaths to relax your mind and body.

2. You can start from your toes or your head. Either way, you will move your focus from one end of your body to the other, like a scan, eventually bringing awareness to all parts of your body, each in turn.

3. For example, if you start from your toes, really focus on feeling your toes, being extremely aware that they exist and how they feel. Stay for a few seconds, or minutes, totally focused on your toes.

4. Begin to move your awareness up your body – to your ankles, legs, knees, etc., all the way up to your head – again focusing all of your attention on each individual part of your body.

5. During this process, notice where your body comes into contact with the surface it’s resting on. Allow the weight of your body to sink into that surface. Let it go. Rest and release the weight of your body, knowing that the earth is ultimately supporting you, as it always does.

6. Notice the places you feel tension, pain or discomfort. Perhaps your stress manifests physically in that particular place. Stay with that feeling, bringing your full awareness to it. As you continue to breathe deeply, imagine your breath flowing into that part of your body where tension exists and allow your breath to take care of it. Try to stay present with whatever your body is feeling.

7. Continue the practice all through your body, for however long you need to, until the anxiety or tension has subsided and you feel relaxed (or until you fall asleep).

It’s really important to take responsibility for our own health and do what we can on our own. The body scan exercise is an obvious example. Acknowledging and managing stress and tension is a great place to start. Stretching, particularly yoga, and regular physical activity are examples of really helpful ways to create awareness and relaxation in the body and to mitigate the aches and pains.

In addition, many of us could benefit from professional treatment, be it occasionally or on a regular basis, if our budget allows. Consider massage, physiotherapy, acupuncture or whatever modality you are comfortable with, or that your doctor might recommend.

In the process of writing this article, the awareness of just how much tightness occurs in my body, not just my teeth, is quite shocking to me. Yet I practice yoga, proper breathing and regular exercise, among other things.

‘Easy going’ and ‘laid back’ are not terms people usually use to describe me, though I like the sounds of them. Maybe that’s it! The question to ask is, “Am I winding up or winding down?”

I’m going to be paying closer attention, listening to and learning from my body. I’m going to focus more on “un” winding and repeating the words, “Let it go. Let it go. Let it go.”

What are you feeling in your body, and what are you doing about it?