That tension in your neck and shoulders just 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 can remember feeling it back in college during final exams.
You have a good idea of what brings it on: the combination of stress and too many hours spent at the computer. You’ve found a great massage therapist, but the effects of her wonderful massages only last a few days. Your personal trainer taught you some neck and shoulder stretches, but those don’t seem to help much either.
So what’s the big mystery? Are our tense muscles merely the result of our 21st century lifestyle, or is something else going on?
It turns out that our lifestyle is part of the problem, but it’s not the whole story.
Your brain and nervous system control your muscles – plain and simple. In the same way that your brain can learn how to walk and run and throw a baseball, it can also learn how to hold your muscles painfully tight.
This process by which we learn new movement skills is called habituation, and it is hardwired 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 our day efficiently, without consciously having to think about every movement we make. It allows baseball players to adjust their swing in a second to hit a curve ball, and allows teenagers to text at lighting-fast speeds.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to this incredible ability we have to learn and remember how to move.
If you slouch and lean forward to look at your computer day after day, your brain – in it’s constant effort to be efficient – will start to keep you in that posture all the time.
If your shoulders tense up every day as a result of job stress and getting stuck in traffic, your brain will remember that too. Soon your shoulders will be tight all the time – even when you’re sleeping.
As you go through the process of learning and remembering a movement, the 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 the control has moved to your subcortex and your movement is happening automatically, both your ability to control the movement and your ability to sense the movement are decreased.
So not only is it difficult to change your learned habit, but you often won’t be aware that you are doing it in the first place. Your shoulders will be tensed up to your ears during an entire meeting, and you won’t even notice.
Our ancestors had a much more varied physical daily life than we do today, so they avoided much of the habitual muscle tension 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, like the thrill of a hunt or the fear of being chased by a tiger, most of us have chronic, low-grade psychological stress. This kind of stress makes it very hard to ever completely relax our minds and our bodies, and makes it seemingly impossible to unlearn muscular habits.
Why don’t massage and stretching have lasting effects? Neither of them changes the messages that your brain is sending to your muscles to stay tight.
There are neuromuscular re-education techniques such as Clinical Somatic Education, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander Technique which allow you to unlearn bad movement patterns and re-learn how to keep your muscles relaxed.
You can also make a great deal of change by simply reminding yourself to be more aware of your posture and how much tension you’re holding in your body.
Next time you notice your shoulders tensing up, take a breath and just relax them. Within a few minutes they’ll probably be tense again, but don’t worry.
The only way to learn and remember something is to practice it over and over. In the same way that you learned to keep your muscles tight, you can also learn to keep them relaxed.