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How To Relieve Tension In The Body (7 Psychophysical Truths!)

How to relieve tension in the body
“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.” (Hans Selye) (Image: Vecteezy)

There’s a saying one of my mentors loves to repeat: “It’s easy to love people on a mountain or in a cave.” What he means is that loving people, which is a noble intention, is difficult to execute amidst the daily challenges of life. Indeed, this is precisely why integrity is so hard. Far from being a form of escapism, it is intimately connected to the mundane aspects of our lives. Mood, emotions, sleep, exercise, and stress influence our behavior in profound ways. To neglect these things is to neglect what matters most.

Intentions don’t matter. Actions do. That’s why being ethical is hard.

Naval Ravikant

Without further ado, my 7 “truths” of stress management, framed as commands, are as follows: 1-) Say goodbye to perfectionism; 2-) Stop being a people-pleaser; 3-) Forgive everyone, including yourself; 4-) Eat a balanced diet; 5-) Do physical activity; 6-) Prioritize connection with others; and 7-) Cultivate a strong spiritual identity. As we engage in these areas of opportunity, health improves, compulsions weaken, and better life outcomes ensue.

To be sure, what qualifies me to elaborate these headings isn’t that I have mastered them, but that I have struggled with every one of them for years:

1. Say goodbye to perfectionism

In The Mindbody Prescription: Healing The Body, Healing The Pain, M.D. John Sarno had this to say about the role perfectionism plays in the generation of tension in the body:

Ben Sorotzkin, a practicing psychologist, suggests that perfectionists unconsciously set up standards for themselves they cannot possibly meet; their inevitable failure to live up to them results in unconscious shame and rage. . . Perfectionism is the predominant personality characteristic in many of my [chronic pain] patients.

In sum, perfectionism generates chronic tension that makes people miserable and drives them to engage in compulsive behaviors. Perfectionism is out-of-step with integrity because it is a denial of human nature. It follows that kissing perfectionism goodbye is one of the best things anyone can do.

2. Stop being a people-pleaser

In The Mindbody Prescription: Healing The Body, Healing The Pain, M.D. John Sarno had this to say about the role people-pleasing plays in the generation of tension in the body:

These [people-pleasers]… have a desire to ingratiate, to want everyone to like them… What’s wrong with striving to be perfect and good? Doesn’t that benefit everybody? From a social and interpersonal perspective, it’s wonderful, but it also engenders great internal anger.

The more we are kind or indulgent out of a mere desire to avoid anxiety or sense of social obligation, the more tension it generates in our minds and bodies. Integrity isn’t just about fulfilling moral obligations; it’s about staying true to ourselves. If we can’t do both, then we have room to improve.  

3. Forgive everyone, including yourself

One of the biggest things these scientists found to get your brain to function like the brains of monks who have been meditating for 20 years… It was this one thing: radical forgiveness. (Vishen Lakhiani)

No one can act beyond their current level of consciousness. (Eckhart Tolle)

It is okay that you have made mistakes. Life didn’t come with instructions. (Viking Proverb)

Forgiveness comes from a place of understanding and compassion. Whereas resentment enlarges pain, forgiveness has a calming and healthful effect. Whereas resentment is backward-looking, forgiveness has an eye toward the future.

4. Eat a balanced diet

I learned this one the hard way, and so I’d be remiss if I left it out. Nutritional deficiencies (iron, B12, Vitamin D, etc.) are known to increase tension and dysfunction in the body. As are nutritional excesses (obesity, excessive sugar intake, fried foods, etc.). Without a balanced diet, it is virtually impossible to live a balanced life. Secularly, it is an axiom. (“You are what you eat.”) In religion, diet is also enshrined as having special importance:

Diet and nutrition influence things like mood, emotions, sleep, and health, all of which impact our ability to love and be loved. This must be reason why God gave the Hebrews so many dietary restrictions in the Old Testament, and modern science evidences the tremendous importance of diet in shaping human outcomes. (Christian Quote #90: Diet And Nutrition)

5. Do physical activity

Not long ago, I had this to say about the therapeutic effect of physical activity on tension, specifically sexual tension:

One thing I have found–and many people I have talked to attest–is that a number of non-sexual activities can blow off some of the steam of sexual desire. Lifting weights, cardio, stretching, massage therapy, etc., are all proven ways to release tension carried in the body. (Sexual Versus Sensory Stimulation And Release)

I’m told that our ancestors lived highly active lives, traveling in nature, foraging for food, and living off the land. They didn’t have the technology and luxuries we enjoy today, and so it stands to reason. That said, human biology evolved to excel at physical activity and depend on it in order to thrive. This may be the reason why our backs start to hurt after being sedentary for too long and we begin to experience mental discomfort.

If you are looking to relieve stress with physical activity, stretching is a nice entry-level option.    

6. Prioritize connection with others  

I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. . .  We are hard-wired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. (Brené Brown)

When connection is present, we feel complete, lacking nothing. When connection is absent, we feel incomplete, eager for an escape or quick-fix.

Connection isn’t something that we can will into existence, but there is hope. As I wrote about in Relationship is the Antidote To Addiction, “We don’t have total control over the success of a relationship–familial, friendly, romantic, or otherwise–but we can always do our part. Usually, when we do our part well enough and long enough in the area of relationships, things overall will work out in our favor. Whereas when we give no effort and opt out of the process entirely, the outcome is guaranteed to be bad.”

7. Cultivate a strong spiritual identity

As we spend time with Abba, He will cut away places of fear and anxiety, which become idols that demand our worship. Abba challenges us to open our hearts and minds to His, removing these hindrances so He can minister healing to our past brokenness. (Matthew Stevenson in Abba: Experience God as Father, and Redeem Your Failure, Hurt, and Pain)

With no spiritual anchor, we are at the mercy of every trial and trauma of the material world. On the other hand, a spiritual anchor has a grounding effect that calms hearts and supplies meaning to experiences.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx)

“Religion is the opium of the people” is often quoted as a dismissive critique of religion. People, they say, practice religion to escape from reality, in the manner of a drug. However, as a person of faith and believer in a true religion (better understood in terms of a relationship with God), I actually fancy this quote. If being in relationship with God is like the effect of a drug, then that’s the way it was meant to be.  

how to relieve tension in the body
An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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