Learning to Relax After Four Decades of Chronic Tension

by Lena Pollack

Every time I get a tensed muscle to relax, it’s like a little miracle. It leaves me awestruck, much like being chosen by a shelter cat, or finding a beautiful field that’s completely empty. Maybe it isn’t anything objectively earth shattering but getting that feeling of release is like an act of a divine spirit. It’s taken not only a lot of time and practice to be able to perform this miracle on myself, but also enormous amounts of patience.

It’s said that just one mindful minute is enough to make a difference, and I’ve spent thousands of mindful minutes practicing Clinical Somatics, cultivating the practice as a tool to communicate with my body. I used to regard every spasm as an everlasting condition, a permanent state of gasping for air. This pain is forever, I’d think. Through medical intervention like needles, massage, muscle relaxants or anti-anxiety tablets, there would be a release, and I’d believe the problem was solved, never to return. But it did return, and each time it did, the story began again. Clinical Somatics has influenced this in two ways: First, learning the techniques has given me agency and influence in my own body. And second, the practice of being in my body without judgement has helped me learn to be accepting of pain when I cannot influence it.

It would often start with a tightness somewhere. Somewhere near me, just on the surface of me, entering through my brain and driving down, an invisible force literally pulling the strings of me. Sometimes it wasn’t anything specific, just a general feeling of pain throughout my body, in my rib cage, in my hips, in my legs. Floating, nonspecific and unplaceable, becoming more unbearable by the second. I’d ask myself gently (hoping the gentleness would be enough to budge it), Where do I feel it? But it would already be too late. Trying (and failing) not to panic, I’d scan from the center of my chest down into my stomach, spreading out to feel my diaphragm. It was (and still sometimes is) hard to take a deep breath. I’d try anyway, but it only made my panic worse. How else am I to feel, when I can’t get enough oxygen? Just the effort of taking the deep breath would send a crackling sensation, beginning in my rib cage and spreading up into my trapezius and neck. Like a hundred rubber bands snapping, having been yanked past their elasticity. Panic would become full-blown fear as I anticipated the impending immobility. After events like this, many days were lost in a haze of muscle relaxants and tears.

Around my early to mid-30s, all forms of exercise, including yoga, which I’d practiced since age 14 and had been a great help after a whiplash incident in 2005, began to hurt and frustrate me. My muscles felt permanently tight, loosened only by medication. Strength training left me in tears and produced a flu-ish feeling the next day. No amount of mindfulness during my workouts seemed to help the inevitable feeling of constantly having overdone it. Movement and exercise no longer gave me any sense of pleasure. I didn’t feel fit and strong. I felt weak, exhausted, depressed, and powerless.

I wondered if I had a chronic illness, and if that were the case, I wondered if I could learn to simply accept it. I got x-rays and had blood tests and saw an orthopedist. I worked with a naturopath. I read about Fibromyalgia, but nothing I read seemed to fit with my symptoms. None of the searching led me to any answers about why my entire body hurt so much, why it seized up at the slightest random movement, why my muscles tingled and twitched, and why I felt so tired. So, this is the state of me, I thought.

It was around this time that I began seeing a physical therapist, initially because I couldn’t take a full stride. My left hip flexor had hurt acutely for over a year and my solution, as a long-time yoga practitioner, was to stretch. I stretched and I bent myself in every position I could think of to get the pain to stop – proud of myself each time I got a little further. And every morning, I’d wake up and there the pain would be. Nagging, yanking, and aching with each step, until finally, my body refused to take a single step more.

The therapist discovered immediately that my psoas had seized up. Getting it to release was a relatively quick but painful process, and it was my first experience with the miracle of effective pain relief. I learned what it felt like to release tension in places I didn’t even know were practically vibrating with tension. Though the pain would always return, my hours and days after seeing the therapist were spent in a joyful, loose, bouncy state of being. It was intoxicating.

Through my work with the therapist, I began to learn that muscle tightness was not a fixed state. The idea of learning to sense my muscles, not just in spasm, but also in neutral and completely relaxed, was completely foreign to me. But very slowly, the fog around that concept started to clear, and I began to see that with patience and knowledge, it could be grasped. So, this is only the state of me at this moment, I’d think.

There was still something out of reach. Every time the therapist touched me (even after seeing him for over a year), I’d flinch. He never said anything, and that allowed me to pretend that he hadn’t noticed. I couldn’t understand why it kept happening, and it embarrassed me. Intellectually I felt quite comfortable and safe with him in the treatment room. Why was I so jumpy? As he worked on different areas of my body, he would ask me questions. Usually, they were questions about the work he was doing. How does that feel? Is that too hard?

But sometimes the questions were more non-specific, and initially struck me as odd. What do you feel when I press here? What’s coming to your mind? Amazingly, things did come to my mind. I was shocked to experience a flood of memories during these bodywork sessions. Despite having seen psychologists off and on for most of my adult life, it was the first time I’d ever linked what I was saying and remembering to what I felt physically.

The aftermath was powerful. I felt physically better, but there was also the feeling that something incredibly deep, heavy, and old, had released. Like a backpack full of bricks I’d somehow forgotten I was carrying. I grew up in a highly stressful and emotionally abusive household, which put me in a constant state of hypervigilance. Those were the memories that most came up during my sessions with the physical therapist. Our work together showed me that I’d literally carried that state of hypervigilance into adulthood. By the time I reached my mid-30s, after so many years of being braced to protect myself, my body was shutting down from exhaustion.

Even after my year and a half working with the physical therapist, learning how to sense myself and calm my nervous system, I still get blindsided. Perhaps I bent over to turn on a light or pick up the shampoo, clenching my glutes and back muscles. Or maybe I turned my head to look out the window, jerking my back muscles and pulling tightly on my neck. Or maybe a sharp, loud sound startled me. Or maybe it was just my husband, whom I love, coming into a room behind me. My shoulder might clamp against my body, pulling up into my clavicle. Or, out of obligation and the practical inability to go no-contact, I’d see my mother for lunch (which can sometimes incapacitate me for a full 24 hours). Moments after coming home, a stabbing sensation would run from the bottom of my ribcage to my lower back, shocking me like a cattle prod.

Attempts to right my posture in these situations are pointless – I never understand how I am “wrong.” When the instinct is deep enough, the body will do whatever it perceives as necessary to protect itself – regardless of whether the situation calls for it or not. To the traumatized child inside me, this kind of muscle bracing is essential to survival. As the adult, no amount of sensing, of mindfulness, of awareness of the situation, can help me figure out what I’ve physically just done. It rarely ever feels like I’ve done anything but be alive, which is to say, I’ve done everything.

The problem comes when my body cannot tell the difference between muscle tension from sitting at a desk for hours, and muscle tension from bracing against a perceived threat. The state of being tense was imprinted for me at a young age specifically as a protective measure, one not to be released. Now, whether I am writing, kayaking, watching a movie, showering, in conversation with someone, or just being still, my body is in a constant state of undulation: brace, sense, breathe, relax, brace, sense, breathe, relax. That there is an undulation at all, a shifting of the constant tension, is a tremendous achievement for me.

I once learned a meditation technique that involved intentionally focusing on a body part in pain, just for a moment, and then deliberately shifting focus to another body part that felt, if not good, at least just neutral. I think about this sometimes when I practice Clinical Somatics. For certain parts of my body, I only know them when they feel painful. If I don’t feel pain there, they simply feel numb. In my practice of Clinical Somatics, I have begun the slow process of learning how to sense an involuntarily tensed muscle, a contracted muscle, a contracting muscle, a relaxed muscle, a relaxing muscle, and a neutral muscle. Somatic exercises have helped me learn to speak the language of my muscles. I’m conversational, but not fluent.

I started Clinical Somatics just before I stopped working with my physical therapist (due to a move), and it didn’t take long for the exercises to have a noticeable effect. Within days of learning the Arch and Flatten, my lower back pain went from an 8 to a 2. I couldn’t even speak about it to my husband; I was afraid that the moment I’d mention it, the back pain would return.

I walked taller and swung my legs freely, and a general sense of ease began to accompany me through my days. As I progressed through the exercises, I started taking more notice of how I moved, and noticing patterns of movement. I noticed what my body did when it was tired, hungry, stressed, or sad, and somehow, just by noticing, instead of holding these states, my body released a little. If tension was at 50%, I could drop it to 30%. A new goal worked its way to the top of my list: to develop ease of being.

The thing that has been the most miraculous is that exercise feels good again – perhaps better than it ever did. But that’s not just from what the Somatic exercises have offered me. It’s also what I’ve offered myself while I practice them: the choice to make movement pleasurable.

When I lift weights, I truly savor the feeling of my muscles contracting and lengthening, of my heart beating and my skin sweating. I swim laps at a public pool and immerse myself in the sensations of my body moving through water, the sound it makes when I exhale, my rib cage expanding and contracting with each breath.

Post workout, instead of stretching, I practice some Clinical Somatics exercises. I rarely feel a sense of overexertion the next day. While I’ve benefited from learning the all the exercises in both courses one and two, I usually find myself going back to the very beginning. The arching and curling movements involved in Daily Practice 1 seem to access, not only my core, but the very core of my tension. After bracing my body during exercise, this practice has been a tremendously useful tool in unwinding my nervous system, as opposed to just showering and dashing out the door. It takes more time, but the less time-consuming alternative is no longer an option.

I still have painful issues with muscle tightness and spasms, and medication remains an important tool. But I’m not incapacitated as often. I have more influence in parts of my body that I’d written off as stiff and numb, like my neck, my chest, and my waist. Clinical Somatics has empowered me to experience being physical with fresh senses. After living almost 40 years of my life in a state of bracing, I see a way toward developing my ability to live, finally, with ease.