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How Tension Works in the Body

Feeling overwhelmed? Have too much on your plate? Running late for work and stuck in traffic?

We often use these phrases to describe tension, however what does tension really mean?

Let’s go back to when you are already running late for work and get stuck in traffic. This is what is happening to your body under tension.

First, your amygdala, which is the part of your brain that processes your emotions, recognizes the threat. It sends a signal of anguish to your hypothalamus. Your nervous system sends signals as your brain triggers a fight or flight response.

Tension is any type of change which is positive or negative, this causes the mind and body to respond. The body’s response to tension is designed to help us take quick action in a moment of danger or any other situation.

Everyone experiences tension. For immediate, short-term situations, tension can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to tension releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond. What really matters is we respond to it and manage it can either make or break our physical and mental health.

What Does Tension Do in the Body?

Overall, the body’s tension response is designed to help us function at our best when confronted with a challenge. When our lives are in danger, the tension response can save our lives. In many tension moments the effects of helpful short-term kicks in and we can quickly adapt, then return to balance. However, long-term, these effects can take wear on the body and can lead to health issues over time. These are few ways tension works in the body:

Tension releases steroid hormones

Your central nervous system (CNS) oversees your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the tension hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.

When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the tension does not go away, the response will continue.

As a result, we can end up overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.

Tension increases respiratory and cardiovascular systems

Tension hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the tension response, you breathe faster to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, tension can make it even harder to breathe.

Under tension, your heart also pumps faster. Tension hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles, so you will have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.

As a result, frequent or chronic tension will make your heart work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for having a stroke or heart attack.

Tension tenses muscles

Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when the tension arises. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you are constantly under tension, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.

The Power of the Rest and Recover

We are designed to live most of our lives in the parasympathetic nervous system state. Tension is meant to be short lived, with the body responding and returning back into homeostasis once the situation is resolved.

If it is meant to be this way, why is it so hard for some of us to leave old tension in the past and reset? In our current world, we deal with non-harmful encounters that does not require a fight or an escape. When the tension is gone, our bodies remain in fight or flight mode because we never get the opportunity to release the built up energy and we feel revved up, but in reality, there is nowhere to go.

After an overwhelming event or few months there is one thing you need to do to help your body return to homeostasis: RELIEVE. Here are a few ways you can do that:


Exercise is one of the most effective ways to release tension because it completes the tension response cycle. When you are feeling tense your heart is racing, you are breathing faster, and glucose and adrenaline are rushing through your veins. You are ready to take action. Exercise gives you the outlet your body needs to use this energy and reset. Cardiovascular exercise from aerobics, running, and dancing will also help.

Make some noise

Screaming into your pillow or out in nature may feel like something you would do as a teenager, but that is not the case we all need to do it sometime. Studies show that yelling, crying, singing, and laughter are great ways to release built up tension. This gives your lungs and heart a chance to expend energy, reset, and relax.

Rest with intention

Tension can make us feel exhausted or energized. Either way, learning to bring your body back into a relaxed state with intention can help you reduce the negative effects of tension. Try activities like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. This helps switch your mind and body out of the tension response and into a relaxed state. It is beneficial to use them whenever you feel like your tension is arising during the day or any moment.

Tension will always be there, but we can learn how to manage it. First step is to help your body complete the tension response and return to balance. Second step is to stay one step ahead of tension, using these tools to build your resilience so you can respond intentionally to life’s challenges, rather than simply reacting.

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