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Anxiety, Tension and Relaxation

Promoting Peace and Tranquility


Anxiety leads to tension but also tension leads to anxiety. Most people with long-term anxiety exist in a higher than average state of tension and a tense body is already making the association with self-protection, 'prepared' to spark off a worrying thought or image and start the ball rolling towards an anxiety or panic attack.


"A state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension of possible misfortune, danger etc." and to be anxious is to be "worried and tense."

(Physics) "The return of a system to equilibrium after a displacement from this state."

(The Collins English Dictionary)


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This can be seen in something that is often experienced by long-term anxiety sufferers, that is: frequent tension in the upper chest and shoulders. Here, we often see constantly raised shoulders, and it happens for two main reasons.

Firstly, it is a defensive posture (I would raise my shoulders if somebody went to strike me) and secondly, it stems from conditioning associated with the body's attempt to relieve tension naturally through sighing. Letting out a deep breath is a natural way to relieve tension.

Many people with frequent anxiety tend hold their breath a lot (especially before going to sleep) in order to sigh. This can lead to conditioning the body to have the chest and shoulders constantly raised and also to the development of breathing from the chest rather than the diaphragm.

[ For relief, try this: throughout the day notice how high your shoulders are and drop them down (or, as in Yoga – 'roll them over and back'). When your shoulders are lowered – do you feel ever so slightly more relaxed? Do this a number of times throughout the day and when you are in bed before you go to sleep.]

Relaxation is the opposite of tension.
A muscle that is relaxed cannot be tense.
We can reduce tension by learning to relax.

This is something that we must do. We have to reduce the tension inside us, for when we exist in a state of 'background' tension our anxiety problem is essentially with us all the time. We may feel that being unable to relax is the problem, but it's not that we cannot relax, it is just that it is very, very difficult given that we have learned so strongly to be tense and prepared.

Learning to relax involves learning how various parts of the body feel when they are tense and relaxing them. Numerous methods exist and one of the most widely used is the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique, First described in the 1920's by Edmund Jacobsen, this involves systematically tensing and relaxing various groups of muscles.

Here's one version of it (by Joy Rains – from the 'healthline' website):

•  Find somewhere quiet and comfortable.
• Start with some deep breathing first, to help relax you a little.


By replacing the fast, upper-chest breathing of anxiety and panic with deep slow breathing, where we breathe from the diaphragm (the muscular wall separating the lungs from the stomach) we redress the oxygen-CO2 balance in the body and promote a feeling of calmness.

1. Take a deep breath in through your nose for a slow count of four (imagine the air filling your stomach, not lungs, and feel it expand)

2. Hold for a slow count of four

3. Breathe out through your mouth for a slow count of four (imagine your stomach pushing the air out)

4. Hold for a slow count of four

5. Repeat 3 or 4 times, no more

• The session should take 20-30 mins.


1. Bring your attention to your feet.
2. Point you feet downward and curl your toes under.
3. Tighten your toe muscles gently, but don't strain.
4. Notice the tension for a few moments, then release and notice the relaxation. Repeat.
5. Become aware of the difference between the muscles when they're tensed and when they're relaxed.
6. Continue to tense and relax the leg muscles from the foot to the abdomen area.


1. Gently tighten the muscles of your abdomen, but don't strain.
2. Notice the tension for a few moments. Then release, and notice the relaxation. Repeat.
3. Become aware of the difference between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles.

Shoulders and neck

1. Very gently shrug your shoulders straight up towards your ears. Don't strain.
2. Feel the tension for a few moments, release, and then feel the relaxation. Repeat.
3. Notice the difference between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles.
4. Focus on the neck muscles, first tensing and then relaxing until you feel total relaxation in this area.

This technique can help to create a state of relaxation in both body and mind. Tensing certain parts of the body then immediately relaxing them promotes greater awareness of (and control over) these two states.

Mind and Body

Relaxing the body relaxes the mind and relaxing the mind relaxes the body. This is shown at times when we are engrossed in some activity such as reading, writing, painting or watching a movie and our mind is taken off the problem completely. When we're not thinking about our problem we are more relaxed both mentally and physically.

The aim is to become more relaxed often (both physically and mentally) to weaken and replace the conditioned state of tension.

See also: Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing for an explanation of how deep breathing promotes calmness.




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