This time of year, as many of us step onto a holiday roller coaster, tension along the tops of our shoulders becomes almost epidemic. Necks ache, shoulders are tender and the holidays begin to promise more chores than cheer. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your household who gives good shoulder rubs, you know that a ten minute session under those hands can give you a new lease on life. What you may not have noticed is that when you stand up after the massage, your posture is better. Not only that, but it’s easier to breathe and your holiday to-do list looks less overwhelming.
Ever wonder why the stress of the holiday season—or any other season—creates such a heavy harness on your shoulders? Lifting the shoulders up toward the ears is what I call a “survival gesture”. Under threat it’s instinctive for humans to protect the soft inner core of our bodies—our brains, hearts and guts. Shoulder tension is a milder version of the emergency “duck and cover” many of us were taught to do in case of disaster. The problem is that our survival instincts get recruited in non-emergency situations.
Using the upper trapezius muscle in this way blocks the natural motion of the upper ribcage, making breathing shallow. Shallow breathing sets up a physiological response—the production of stress hormones—that makes everything seem more urgent than it really is.
If you get caught in a holiday harness with no masseuse in sight, you can help yourself by doing the following “progressive relaxation” exercise: first, exaggerate the shoulder tension-- temporarily make it worse on purpose. Go ahead and pull your shoulders up toward your ears as if you were trying to touch your earlobes with your shoulders. Hold them there and notice how boxed-in you feel, how tight your chest and neck, how hard it is to breathe.
After appreciating how terrible your body now feels, begin to let the tension go in very small steps. Let it go in twenty distinct steps, one twentieth of the tension at a time. Each incremental release allows you to breathe a little easier. As you pass the halfway point, feel your shoulder blades sliding down along your back. Once you’ve reached step 20, take a moment to walk around a bit, letting your shoulders stay at home--on your back. Repeat the exercise until you notice a subtle shift in your outlook, and in your posture.
The basic message of The New Rules of Posture is that we create body posture by the way we move through our lives. Noticing a tension habit is the first step toward changing it. Comparing the feeling of the tension with an alternative sensation in your body gives you a choice. In this example, it’s comparing the “boxed in” feeling with the more relaxed posture you felt after the progressive release. In which state would you rather spend the holidays?
For more information about releasing your shoulders, breathing, and the relationship between stress and good posture, read The New Rules of Posture, and check out my new video workshop: Heal Your Posture: A 7-Week Workshop. (Great holiday gifts!)