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Breaking the Anxiety-Tension Cycle (in just 10-mins)

Anxiety and physical tension are deeply intertwined. One usually produces the other. Mild to moderate anxiety is associated with physical tension in jaws, foreheads, necks, shoulders, backs or stomachs, sometimes lasting years, possibly even entire lifetimes. It’s a link that we all sort of know, but don’t usually think much about.

In this article I’ll explain why anxiety and physical tension are linked. I’ll offer up a possible solution to break the link and then explain how you can use that solution to remove both anxiety and physical tension, in as little as 10-mins. If anxiety is your invisible friend, then read on, because a tranquil mind is not a little gift1.

The link between anxiety and physical tension

Anxiety is a familiar, if unwelcome companion to many of us. It accompanies us on the most significant events of our lives, quietly questioning and casting doubt on our abilities, our personalities and our futures.

A tranquil mind is not a little gift

When we have anxiety, we likely also have physical tension, such as a tight jaw, tense shoulders or a churning stomach. Anxiety and physical tension are deeply linked. They evolved as a double act to keep our stone-age ancestors alive, through increased vigilance, alertness and readiness. It made perfect sense. If you were concerned about a noise in the bushes, your body instantly and automatically prepared itself to run or fight. Hence:

You cannot reduce anxiety if physical tension remains.

You cannot remove physical tension if you remain anxious.

Most of us mistakenly believe that a relaxing activity like watching TV or reading a book will calm us down. But such activities often do little to help, because we may still be tensing or holding core muscles, such as abdominals, eyes or shoulders. Don’t believe me? Check in on yourself next time you are watching a movie or TV and identify all the muscles that are still ON. You’ll find it’s a quite a few. Even the act of thinking, engages and tightens the tiny muscles around the eyes. Hence why Botox has proved helpful in reducing worry and mild depression2 as it reduces the physical tension around the eyes. Research supports the concept that ‘the facial musculature not only expresses, but also regulates mood states’.

Anxiety cannot remain, in the complete absence of physical tension

So the bad news is that TV may not help us as much as we thought, but the good news is that understanding this anxiety-tension connection means we can apply a clever hack. Anxiety cannot remain, in the complete absence of physical tension.

How might Progressive Muscle Relaxation help with anxiety and physical tension?

Tension Release or Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a simple, but effective, evidence-based technique. Introduced by Jacobson in the 1920s, the process has been used by clinicians ever since. It aims to remove anxiety and calm the mind and nervous system by progressively tensing and releasing all the major muscles groups, to remove all physical tension. The quiet, calm relaxation that follows is often further enhanced with positive suggestions.

The facial musculature not only expresses, but also regulates mood states

It can be a great technique to try in the moment, for stress, anxiety or overwhelm. And it can be effective in just a few minutes. When practiced just before bed, it helps promote relaxation and sleep. Indeed, many of my own clients don’t hear the end of the 13-min audio because they’ve fallen asleep.

How do you do Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

You do progressive muscle relaxation by systematically tightening each major muscle group, holding for a few moments and then releasing. I find that if you can hold your breath at the same time, the resulting release of breath and body creates a deeper relaxation response. So for example ..

Feet: Starting at your feet begin to tense your feet by scrunching your toes tightly. Hold onto the tension and notice what it feels like. Scrunch them up tight. Hold it. Squeeze it. Take a deep breath in and hold everything for a few moments longer. Then slowly release your breath and all the tension in your feet. Notice the feeling of relaxation, of letting go.

Lower legs: Next, begin to focus on your lower leg and your calf muscles. Tense the muscles in your calves by flexing your feet up towards your face. Hold them tightly and pay attention to the feeling of tension. Flex them. Hold them. Squeeze it all tight. Take a deep breath in and hold it some more. Now release your breath and the tension from your lower legs & calves. Again, notice the feeling of relaxation.

We then continue in the same way to the upper legs, the back, the stomach, the arms, the neck, the face, the eyes and then the entire body.

Reading a relaxation isn’t great, so if you want to give it a go, here’s a free 13-min guided recording that you can download and listen to (at a time when you can safely relax and let go).

Once you’ve got the hang of the activity, you’ll find you can secretly apply it in the midst of many stressful situations, without others noticing. Having a nightmare meeting? Tense and release the muscles of your legs or lower arms under the desk. Waiting in line for your coffee? Tense and release the muscles of the upper body, head, neck and face (as long as it’s safe to do so).

So in summary, PMR is a fantastic tool to keep handy in your keeping it together toolkit. This method has been in use for almost 100 years and good things last. At a bare minimum, if you can just remember the link between anxiety and physical tension, you’re halfway there.


What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

I’m Debbie Jeremiah, a leadership learning professional with an interest in the mind at work and accessing the subconscious through regression and hypnotherapy. These are my own thoughts and opinions and as such, may contain inaccuracies and biases. This article is an extract of a blog originally posted on

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1 A tranquil mind is not a little gift (A Course in Miracles, Helen Schucman)

2 Facing depression with botulinum toxin: A randomized controlled trial, (Wollmer et al). Journal of Psychiatric Research, 46, 5, 2012

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