“What do you think about chronically tense muscles, caused by emotions?”

Olivia writes: “What do you think about chronically tense muscles, which were caused by emotions? People tense their shoulders during stressful times, and older people tend to be more hunched than younger people. Most people I know have tense shoulders, including myself. The pelvis is another chronically tense area, and can be related to health problems. I’m guessing these tensions are caused by (unprocessed?) emotions. Do you think it’s possible to release the tension using Focusing — if not completely, at least partially? This is not just some sensation that might transform and move, it’s something that has been sitting there for a long time. How would you approach such body tensions? Just take a time every day to ‘talk’ to this muscle or body area?”

Dear Olivia,  
Yes, these chronic body tensions can be very painful, and can be related to all sorts of health issues. And yes, we can suspect that emotions, life stresses, and even old trauma are involved somehow. But the shoulders or the pelvis might not actually be the place where “something” is located that had the impact on the shoulders or pelvis. The tension may be displaced — and we’ll need to listen to it at its source.

So to work with this kind of tense area, first notice and sense. Take time to sit in a comfortable and supported way, and simply bring awareness to (let’s say) your shoulders. Get to know exactly what it feels like there, right now.

Right away you might feel an impulse to fix it or change it, like the urge to stretch out or roll the shoulders. And why not? Maybe that will help! But after rolling and stretching, come back to just sensing. Find fresh descriptions for how it feels there. You might discover that the word “tension” isn’t exactly right… some word or phrase or metaphor will describe it better. (When a description fits exactly, there is often a little sense of relief.)

Next I would suggest inviting a part of you that you might not be feeling directly right now. “I’d like to invite contact with something in me that brings this [tense] feeling in my shoulders.” (Use the word you found.) Then sense in your throat, chest, stomach, belly area… and wait.

“Why sense in my throat, chest, and stomach if it is my shoulders that are tense?”

Focusing is about being with your body’s felt senses, and chronic tension in your shoulders is not a felt sense. Felt senses come freshly, when we invite them, and contain body wisdom that is deeply connected to what we need.

So it’s important to spend time sensing the feeling in the shoulders… AND THEN inviting a felt sense to come.

Because the middle area of the body is a sensitive field for picking up emotional knowing, felt senses come most often in the throat, chest, stomach area. Not always… but it’s a lot easier to feel them there. Especially if chronic tension in your shoulders is shouting loudly, you might have a hard time feeling the subtle felt sense in your shoulders. A felt sense OF what’s been bringing tension to the shoulders can be felt elsewhere… like in the middle of your body.

In doing this, you’re reversing the original sequence. Originally, you had emotions that were not attended to and allowed to tell their story, and the result was tension somewhere in the body. Now, we start by acknowledging the tension, and invite it to guide us to where some emotional states may still be waiting for company.

I suspect it wasn’t so much the emotions themselves that led to this situation, but something in you that didn’t feel it was safe or allowable to feel them. That would surely bring tension!

So be gentle with the place of tension itself, and then invite “something in you” that brings the tension to come to awareness. Be patient… be open to what is subtle and hard to put into words… and you will begin to be aware of something.

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