This tension in your neck and shoulders never goes away. You can't remember exactly when it started - maybe it was just a few years ago when you started your new job.
Or maybe you remember feeling it in college on final exams. You have a good idea of what drives it: the combination of stress and too many hours spent in front of the computer. You've found a great massage therapist, but the effects of her wonderful massages only last a few days.
His personal trainer taught him some neck and shoulder stretches, but those don't seem to help much either. So what is the great mystery? Are our tense muscles simply the result of our 20th century lifestyle, or is something else going on? It turns out that our lifestyle is part of the problem, but not the whole story.
Your brain and nervous system control your muscles, plain and simple. In the same way that your brain can learn to walk, run, and throw a baseball, it can also learn to keep your muscles painfully tense.
This process by which we learn new movement skills is called habituation and is built into all of our nervous systems. You probably know it as muscle memory. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing.
It allows us to get through the day efficiently, without having to consciously think about every move we make. It allows baseball players to adjust their swing in one second to hit a curve ball and allows teens to send text messages at fast speeds.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to this incredible ability we have to learn and remember how to move. If you stoop and lean forward to stare at your computer day after day, your brain, in its constant effort to be efficient, will begin to keep you in that position all the time.
If your shoulders get tense every day as a result of job stress and getting stuck in traffic, your brain will remember that too. Soon your shoulders will be tense all the time, even when you are sleeping.
As you go through the process of learning and remembering a movement, control of that movement moves to a different part of your brain: from the cortex (your conscious mind) to the subcortex (your subconscious mind).
Once control has moved to your subcortex and your movement is happening automatically, both your ability to control movement and your ability to feel movement decrease. So not only is it difficult to change your learned habit, but you often won't realize that you are doing it in the first place.
His shoulders will be tense up to his ears for an entire meeting and he won't even notice it. Our ancestors had a much more varied physical daily life than we have today, thus avoiding much of the usual muscular tension that we have that results from repetitive movements.
Our ancestors also had different sources of stress. Instead of the acute physical stress that our ancestors experienced, such as the thrill of a hunt or the fear of being chased by a tiger, most of us suffer from chronic low-level psychological stress.
This type of stress makes it very difficult for our mind and body to fully relax, and makes it seemingly impossible to unlearn muscle habits. Why don't massage and stretching have lasting effects? None of them alter the messages your brain sends to your muscles to stay tense.
There are neuromuscular rehabilitation techniques such as Clinical Somatic Education, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander Technique that allow you to unlearn bad movement patterns and relearn how to keep your muscles relaxed.
You can also make a big change by simply reminding yourself to be more aware of your posture and how much tension you have on your body.
The next time you notice your shoulders tense up, breathe in and just relax. In a few minutes they will probably be tense again, but don't worry.
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