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What is Tension?

Tension is a skeletal-muscle reaction that ordinarily facilitates movements such as walking, talking or writing. However under the pressure of a stressful situation the fight or flight reaction often results in excessive and unnecessary muscle activity, which is "Tension." Since stresses occur continuously in life, the resulting muscle reactions may develop into an extended over-tense state which can be dangerous to your health. Tension is contraction of the skeletal muscles of the body. A state of over-tenseness may produce various pathological bodily reactions.

The Results of Excessive Chronic Tension

The prolonged over-tenseness of continued contraction of the skeletal muscles may contribute to high blood pressure, a heart attack, rapid heart beat, gastrointestinal problems such as duodenal or peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis, spastic colon, or spastic esophagus. Pain is a primary reaction, often occurring in the form of headache, backache, leg pain, or possibly an arthritic condition. Psychiatric reactions include anxieties, "nervousness," phobias, depression, insomnia, chronic fatigue and bruxism (clenching of the jaw or teeth grinding).

There are techniques aimed at relieving tension by allowing you to control your physical reactions and to achieve a better mental attitude toward the pressures of life. One of these is a neuromuscular relaxation technique known as Progressive Relaxation, a medically validated system of untensing muscles. Clinical Progressive Relaxation can often undo much of the physical or emotional harm resulting from over-tenseness. There are many other techniques offered to help you control your tension. These include modified forms of Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Training, and biofeedback training, but Progressive Relaxation is the original technique, and the most thoroughly validated. To understand how relaxation can be accomplished, we must first understand what happens when we become tense.

The Development of Tension

When stress strikes, several things happen immediately. First, the skeletal muscles contract and the hypothalamus, a small neural center in the brain, reacts. The hypothalamus, among other organs, influences the autonomic nervous system, which involves involuntary activities of bodily organs. It also mediates activity in the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into the bloodstream. Under stress, as the muscles tense, breathing becomes faster and deeper. The heartbeat quickens. Some blood vessels constrict, raising the blood pressure and almost closing the vessels right under the skin. The throat muscles and those in the nostril force those passages wide open. The stomach and intestines temporarily halt digestion. Perspiration increases, and secretion of mucous and saliva decreases. The pupils of the eyes dilate involuntarily.

At the same time the adrenal glands release two hormones - epinephrine and norepinephrine - which affect circulation, elevating heartbeat and blood pressure. These hormones signal the spleen to release more red blood corpuscles. They enable the blood to clot more quickly, and encourage the bone marrow to produce more white corpuscles. They also increase the amount of fat and sugar in the blood.

While these events are occurring, the pituitary gland secretes two more hormones, abbreviated TSH and ACTH. TSH and ACTH increase the rate at which the body produces energy and which reinforce the signals sent to the adrenal glands through the autonomic nervous system. ACTH also causes the adrenals to release about 30 other stress-related hormones.

While the autonomic and hormonal systems answer the call to fight or flight, the muscles of the skeletal system are reacting also. It is the response of the skeletal muscles - the striated muscles attached to the bones - which we must thoroughly examine in order to understand how to alleviate stress and tension related disorders.

The Muscles React

The accepted scientific and clinical definition of tension is the contraction (shortening) of muscle fibers. Relaxation is defined as the elongation (lengthening) of muscle fibers, the absence of tension.

There are some 1,030 separate skeletal muscles in your body, almost half your body weight. When you perceive an intensely stressful event, these muscles immediately contract. You can thus understand how that enormity of muscle can develop considerable tension in you and that numerous volleys of nerve impulses can be generated in the tiny receptors embedded in the muscle. These neural impulses generated by muscle tension are then transmitted to the brain along sensory control fibers. When the neural impulses enter the brain, extremely complex central nervous system events result, following which additional neural impulses return to the muscles along motor control fibers. When the motor neural impulses from the brain reach the muscles there is further muscular contraction, resulting in new volleys of neural impulses being directed to and from the brain. Obviously this muscle-brain-muscle circuit can become a continuous condition of over-reacting in which one can develop a chronic state of over-tension.

A lifetime of injudicious reaction to stress with resultant over-tension can lead to malfunction of various bodily systems, including cardiovascular problems, general aches and pains, and fatigue. There is no quick and easy cure. However, since the excessive tension state is a circular muscle-to-brain-to-muscle reaction, it is possible to interrupt the circuit by simply relaxing the skeletal muscles. One can thereby produce a state of rest in all the neural and muscular components of these neuromuscular circuits, including the brain itself. But achieving a state of relaxation takes time and dedicated learning. Just as we have spent our lives learning to systematically misuse our muscles, it is reasonable to expect that it will take time to re-educate them. On the positive side, though, cultivation of a state of bodily rest and relaxation can be achieved in much less time than it took to learn to misuse your muscles in the first place.

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