There are 3 distinct tension holding systems in your body that we pay close attention to every time we see you. In this blog we’ll consider the ‘active’ tension system and the role it plays in your health and wellbeing (the other major systems are known as the ‘passive’ and ‘neural’ tension systems – we’ll get to these later).
What do we mean by ‘active’ tension?
Active muscle tensions are those tensions created by active muscle contractions, particularly of the ‘prime mover’ and large postural muscles of the body. These prime movers are large muscles which span the joints of the body and are capable of generating a huge amount of force (muscles like the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, trapezius, biceps, pecs, etc).
For this reason it’s the sort of tension most people are aware of when they feel tight or tense, and might motivate them to see us or someone like a massage therapist for relief.
There is also another set of equally important muscles in the body which have the role of stabilizing joints, particularly of the spine, against external forces or loads, and also against excessive movement when the prime movers contract. These are much smaller and generate less force. They are also richly supplied with sensory nerves and have the additional role of sending feedback to your brain about the position of your body in space (we touched on this in the last blog).
So what is it that we look for in this system when you lay down to be adjusted?
Firstly, we want to know what muscles are remaining switched on when you do this. This is because when you lay face down and relax, all of the muscles in your body should be in a relaxed state – it removes the background contraction required to maintain your upright posture against gravity and because you’re not moving, all of the prime movers should respond by relaxing too.
When we notice a high level of muscle tension it gives an indication of which, if any, stress responses are active in your body. Occasionally we will find localized muscle spasm if you are injured, but large patterns of muscle tension are a sign that your body is in an active ‘protective’ state.
More specifically, different ways of responding to stress trigger different groups of muscles to be active. Picture a person who is angry – they have tight and elevated shoulders, tightness in their trunk and their chest rises. This is very different to a person who reacts to stress by being overwhelmed – they sink their head and neck forward, collapse forward around their solar plexus, and tuck their tailbone under (of course there are many other ‘stress postures’ we look for).
The important thing to understand here is that when we identify that there are active stress responses present in your spine, these are complex ‘protective’ states which are mediated by the central, primitive part of your brain, and they affect much more than the levels of tension in your muscles and your posture.
Active stress responses affect every system (and cell) of your body – your digestive system, immune system & hormonal system among others. They also give us a window into what emotional states you default to when stress is building up.
Does this mean you need to feel stressed?
Absolutely not. Although many people will notice stress going on in their life, these retained stress responses tend to build slowly over time, and we accommodate to them. This slow buildup means that we’re generally used to how we’re feeling and think it’s normal – it’s often as we let go that we notice the difference. It is also largely an unconscious process, so if we have no major stresses in front of us right now, we tend to assume we’re ‘unstressed’.
We are all capable of compensating for any of these changes in the short term, but when stress stays chronically active it puts an enormous load on our body’s resources and reduces how we function, feel and perform in life.
If you haven’t been checked for a while or think you may be holding stress in your body, it’s a great idea to come and see us so we can let you know how you’re coping and get you back on track.