Most of us, in practically all our everyday activities, are driving with the brake on. That brake is unconscious tension. We have worked and played in a tense condition for so long that we regard it as more or less normal. We do not notice the clenched jaw, the tight abdomen, the constricted muscles. Yet the resulting fatigue burns up our energy, impairs our skills and even dulls our appreciation of the world about us.
Tension is excess effort: trying too hard to do things that should be done automatically. It causes muscles to jam and contract. Make a conscious effort to speak correctly and you stutter or become tongue-tied. Let the accomplished pianist think about his fingers and he is likely to make a mistake.
Most of us put forth too much effort for the task at hand. Our muscles work better when we speak our orders quietly than when we shout at them. In order to see perfectly, for example, the eyes must make numerous minute movements, scanning the object under observation. This scanning is an automatic reflex; it is no more subject to your will than is your heartbeat. But when you stare–make a conscious effort to see–the eyes become tense.
They do not scan as they should and sight suffers.
Nor is the damage done by tension limited to the body. When muscles are tense, contracting without purpose, a feeling of confusion is relayed back to the brain. Why is it that a poised man whose ideas reel out effortlessly when he is in his own study suddenly finds his mind a blank when he is attending an important board meeting? Because tenseness, resulting from making too much effort, has jammed his psychomotor mechanisms.
Tension tends to become an unconscious habit; muscles tend to stay constricted. How, then, can you become conscious of unconscious tension? How can you relax?
First, by locating the tension in your muscles. For example, you are probably unaware of any tension in your forehead at this moment, but there is a good chance that some is there. In order to recognize it, consciously produce more tension: wrinkle your forehead into a frown and notice the feeling in the muscles. Practice sensing the tension that you thus consciously produce. Then, tomorrow, stop working for a moment and ask yourself, “Am I aware of any tension in my forehead?” You can probably detect the faint sensation already there. One student told me, “When I started to relax, I discovered layer after layer of tension of which I had been totally unaware.”
Once you learn to recognize tension, you can learn to relax. The way to do this is first to produce ‘more’ tension in your muscles. Don’t try to relax! A muscle tends to relax itself. Consciously tense a particular muscle; then stop. The muscle relaxes and will continue to relax automatically if it is not interfered with.
The muscles of the brow and forehead need special attention, for they are closely associated with anxiety and confusion. With the brow relaxed it is practically impossible to feel worried. The next time you have a problem to solve, make it a point to keep your brow relaxed and see if the problem does not seem less difficult.
The jaw is one of the most expressive parts of the human body. We grit our teeth in rage, clench our jaws in determination. When your jaw is tensed, your brain, which is constantly receiving nerve messages from your muscles, reasons something like this: “We must be in difficulty, we must have a terrible job to do.” You then become conscious of a feeling of pressure.
As soon as you relax your jaw muscles, however, your brain says, “Ah, we are out of difficulty now,” and you get a feeling of confidence. So, every time you feel anxious or experience self-doubt, notice that you are contracting your jaws. Then stop.
The hands are the main executive instrument of the body. They are involved in almost everything we do or feel. We throw up our hands in hopelessness, shake our fist when we are angry. When hands are kept tense, the whole body is geared for action. Learn to relax your hands when you find yourself in a tight spot or when something irritates you. It will take the pressure off and give you a feeling that you are master of the situation.
If you were expecting a blow in the pit of the stomach, you would instinctively tense the abdominal muscles for defense. And if you habitually live on the defensive, your subconscious keeps your stomach muscles continually tensed. Thus, another vicious circle is set up. The brain receives defensive messages from the abdominal muscles and this keeps you feeling insecure. Learn to break the circle. When you feel anxious or worried, stop and relax your abdomen.
If you try to control your anxieties mentally, you will probably only make yourself more nervous. But you “can” control your key muscles. Learn to relax them at midmorning, just before lunch and in midafternoon. Sit down and “jelly” yourself into the most comfortable position. Or lie on your back on a bed with your arms at your sides. Then check your key points for tension: brow, abdomen, jaw, hands, and so on. Tighten each, and then let go, allowing the muscle to relax by itself.
Breathing furnishes a valuable control for toning down the degree of excitement throughout the entire body. When we are emotionally tense, we say we have something on our chest. When a crisis is past, we say that we can breathe easier. But it works both ways. If we can learn to breathe easier in the first place, we won’t get so tense.
It will help you to learn to breathe correctly if you recognize that the body has two separate breathing patterns. Nervous breathers breathe high in the chest by expanding and contracting the rib box. They also breathe too fast and too deeply. This particular breathing pattern was engineered for emergencies. It is the way you breathe when you are out of breath from running a race. Your chest heaves as you take in great gulps of air. Your muscles need oxygen fast, and this is the way to get it. Nervous people are so used to reacting with emergency behavior to simple, ordinary tasks that they use this emergency-breathing mechanism all the time.
Non-emergency breathing is belly breathing. It is done more from the diaphragm; most of the movement is in the lower chest wall and the upper abdomen. As the diaphragm smoothly contracts and lets go, a gentle massage is applied to the whole abdominal area. The abdominal muscles relax. It is virtually impossible to feel tense when you breathe habitually from your belly.
If you find yourself breathing nervously and fast, keep right on–but breathe that way because you ‘want’ to. Take as many as 50 to 100 of these deliberate nervous breaths, thus bringing your breathing under control of your will. This conscious control will in itself cause the feeling of nervousness to diminish. After a time you will find that it is an effort to keep breathing fast, and a relief to let yourself breathe more slowly.
One of the most malicious causes of tension is hurry. You can hurry while sitting down, apparently doing nothing, or while waiting for a bus. Many people feel hurried because they think there just isn’t enough time. They would do well to heed Sir William Osler’s advice to his students when he told them to think of how much time there is to use, rather than of how little.
Whenever you feel a sense of hurry, deliberately slow down. Everyone has his own best pace or tempo for doing things, and when we give in to hurry we allow external things and situations to set our pace for us. The great Finnish runner, Paavo Nurmi, always carried a watch with him in his races. He referred to it, not to the other runners. He ran his own race, keeping his own tempo, regardless of competition.
A basic cause of tension is putting too much emphasis on the ultimate goal, trying too hard to win. It is good to have a clear mental picture of your objective; but your attention should be concentrated on the specific job at hand.
And when that job is done, remember there will be something else to do tomorrow. So relax! Life is not a 100-yard dash, but more in the nature of a cross-country run. And no one can sprint all the time.