Besides trapping the tension in your body, all of these unconscious gestures expend energy. Become aware of how tightly you hold your toothbrush, or your pencil, or the steering wheel of your car. Over time, these unconscious habits can take their toll. They can hurt your body, as can happen with overly vigorous tooth brushing, which can wear away tooth enamel. Sitting tensely behind the wheel of your car will increase the degree of contraction (and possibly pain) in the muscles of your lower back, neck, and legs.
A word of encouragement: Loosening up doesn't only happen in the physical body. As you let go of tension in your muscles, you may find that emotional "muscles" are loosened up as well. That may be a welcome relief or it may provide a challenge for you. If you've kept your grief or fear under control with a tight body armor for a long time, such feelings may be unwelcome when they first start to wiggle free. Actually, you are offering yourself a gift with this kind of loosening up. Take it slowly; take all the time you need to befriend your feelings, as we've discussed in Chapter 4: Befriend Your Feelings. Refer back to that section.
Loosen Up All Over
In order to appreciate wellness, your whole system needs to be relaxed and opened up and flexible. You need to be open enough to receive the energy that breathing and food and movement and light and human communication offer you. It's hard to receive a gift with a closed fist. Once you have a better idea of your patterns of holding or contracting, you can consciously initiate the practice of letting go. In some cases, you may need to visit a health professional who specializes in your particular condition. For instance, TMJ (temporal-mandibular joint) syndrome, a chronically tight condition of the jaw, can be helped with biofeedback training, among other approaches. But for most patterns of tension, self-care is all you need.
* Use your breath. When you notice tension, consciously direct your breath into that part of the body. Imagine, as you inhale, that the oxygen is flowing freely, in and around the tense spots. Feel it loosening muscles and supplying renewed energy to that area.
* Use visual imagery. When you find your shoulders (or any part of your body) tight, create an image that soothes you. For example, imagine that you are standing under a warm shower that is softening the tough places or washing away the tension; or see yourself floating on a cloud.
* Use self-massage. You don't need to know any fancy massage techniques to release tension in your body. If your face is contracted with worry or concentration, a few gentle strokes with your fingertips in the tense areas can transform them. When you touch a part of your body consciously and tell it to relax, it often will, immediately.
* Use self-talk. It is possible to alleviate the pain and tension caused by contracted muscles by simply repeating a soothing phrase. "My lower back is loosening and warming," for instance. The talk focuses your attention on the hurting place, and that attention catalyzes the relaxation of the muscles.
* Move the tension out. Physical exercise is a great way to relieve overall bodily tension. Go for a swim or a brisk walk, or put on some music and dance. Pretend that you are shaking the tension off as you move. You will find that you actually are.
Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.