Stress: Is It All In The Mind?

Look at this scared kitten! We can all see that it feels threatened. It has arched its back, pulled its head back into its body, its eyes are widened, and everything is tense – poised for flight or fight. And that’s just what we see on the outside, inside adrenaline is released and the heart rate goes up, blood is diverted from the gut to the muscles, so they are ready for action. Everything is diverted to just what is needed for immediate survival.

Once the threat has gone, this kitten will be quick to come out of this state, and only minutes later it can be back to being playful or languid and relaxed.

I’m not a cat, so why is this relevant to me?

Well, we are mammals, and this response to threat is a basic one that is very old evolutionarily. Therefore, when frightened or shocked we behave in a very similar way: fight, flight or freeze.

Luckily, we are not often in life and death situations, but we are often under stress, which is essentially a mild form of  (perceived) threat. We have all of these physical responses, adrenaline and cortisol release and changes to our nervous system in the same way, but just more subtly and over much longer periods of time.

And unfortunately, as humans, because of our capacity to think and worry we don’t even have to be under direct stress in that moment, we can create this stress state all by ourselves! If we don’t let our tense posture go, like a kitten does when the threat has passed, we can end up retaining this as our default posture. “Practice makes permanent” – i.e. if you have this tense, defensive response most of the time the brain will eventually set this way of being as your “normal”, and a light, open posture will start to feel a bit strange and abnormal.

This is why “good” posture isn’t about being upright or being perfectly aligned in some way.

It is that if we can shake off our tension patterns, we naturally tend to open out and come up to our full height. And this can go hand in hand with feelings of relaxation and confidence, as our “fight and flight” systems are less activated.

If you are prone to anxious thoughts or worrying it can be useful to remember that these thoughts will be triggering some of these physical responses in you, and vice versa. If you can notice and reduce some of these responses this can help calm the mind. Body and mind aren’t separate!

So to calm your inner kitten…..

  • Start with your neck and shoulders. Think of letting go with the muscles of the shoulders. Ungrip the neck muscles so that you aren’t pulling your head back.
  • Think of letting yourself come up to your full height- Keep this thought light, like a gentle request. If you physically stretch or pull yourself up you will be adding another layer of tension rather than undoing it.
  • Remember that you might hold a ‘defensive’ posture as your “normal”, so don’t expect to feel a dramatic shift. But if you keep releasing the tension, when you remember to think about it, gradually changes will happen.

This can all seem a strange way of going about things to begin with. Do less? Let go of tension? How do I do that? How do I even know if I am tense if being tense is my “normal”?

This is where a little hands-on help can go a long way. If you want to learn where you are holding your tension , and how to let it go, I’d love to help you. Get in touch.

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