Tense muscles and anxiety are closely connected.
When you experience anxiety or stress, your body’s natural stress response is activated, triggering a cascade of physiological changes, including muscular tension. Here’s a closer look at the connection between tense muscles and anxiety:
1. Sympathetic nervous system activation: Anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. When this system is activated, it releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, preparing the body for action. One effect of this response is the tightening and tensing of muscles throughout the body.
2. Muscle guarding: Tense muscles can act as a form of protective mechanism. When you feel anxious or threatened, your body may instinctively tense up as a way to guard against potential harm. This muscle guarding can create a sense of readiness for action, but it can also contribute to ongoing muscle tension and discomfort.
3. Feedback loop: There is often a cyclical relationship between muscle tension and anxiety. Anxiety can lead to muscle tension, and in turn, tense muscles can intensify anxiety symptoms. The discomfort or pain caused by tense muscles can be a source of stress and further contribute to anxiety or heightened stress levels.
4. Body-mind connection: The body and mind are interconnected, and physical sensations can influence emotional well-being. When you experience tense muscles, particularly in areas like the neck, shoulders, or jaw, it can send signals to the brain that something is amiss. These physical sensations can be interpreted by the brain as a potential threat, triggering or exacerbating feelings of anxiety or stress.
5. Chronic muscle tension and anxiety disorders: In some cases, chronic muscle tension can be associated with anxiety disorders. Similarly, individuals with chronic stress or anxiety may experience ongoing muscle tension that contributes to their overall symptomatology.
What can we do to help children release this tension?
As a parent, carer or professional supporting anxious children, it’s essential to help the children release tension and promote relaxation, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. Here are some friendly suggestions on how to release muscle tension:
1. Neck stretches: Encourage the child to gently tilt their head to each side, bringing their ear closer to their shoulder. Hold each stretch for a few seconds while taking deep breaths. This can help release tension in the neck muscles.
2. Shoulder rolls: Teach the child to roll their shoulders in a circular motion, moving them up, back, and down. Encourage them to do a few sets of shoulder rolls, both forward and backward. This exercise can help relieve tension in the shoulder muscles.
3. Back stretches: Show the child how to do a gentle back stretch by standing tall and reaching their hands overhead, lengthening their spine. Encourage them to take deep breaths as they slowly bend backward, allowing their chest to open up. This stretch can help release tension in the back muscles.
4. Child-friendly yoga: Explore child-friendly yoga exercises together. There are plenty of resources available online that provide yoga poses specifically designed for children. Yoga poses such as Cat-Cow, Child’s Pose, and Cobra Pose can help release tension in the neck, shoulders, and back.
5. Massage techniques: Teach the child some simple self-massage techniques for the neck, shoulders, and back. For example, they can use their fingertips to gently rub the back of their neck or use their palms to massage their shoulders and upper back. Encourage them to apply gentle pressure and focus on areas that feel tense.
6. Heat or cold therapy: If the child is comfortable with it, you can use heat or cold therapy to help relax their muscles. For example, you can apply a warm towel or heating pad to their neck and shoulders or use an ice pack wrapped in a cloth for a few minutes to help alleviate any inflammation or discomfort.
Tips to take away
- Help the child understand where they ‘hold’ their tension/anxiety in their body.
- Once they have understood this – help them do movements and exercises to release this tension, so that it doesn’t become a unconscious trigger back into fight/flight/freeze
- Look at their posture and core strength – do they give their jaw, neck, shoulders, and back an opportunity to release tension as they stand or walk – or are they building that tension up during the day