You're Probably Storing Stress In Your Body: 6 Common Areas + Tips To Release The Tension
Stress is tricky to conquer—that's an understatement. Those feelings manifest in numerous ways, not all of them easy to spot with a simple mental check-in. In fact, according to psychologist and certified yoga teacher Gail Parker, Ph.D., C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, you hold stress physically in your body—sometimes without even knowing it. "We experience stress and trauma in our bodies. It lands with great force viscerally," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Meaning, you might not think you're feeling stressed—you may even feel totally fine!—but your body language tells an entirely different story.
So, where do you hold on to stress, and how can you release it? According to Parker, there are a few key areas to focus on.
6 common areas people store stress.
One of the most common areas, she notes, is the shoulders. It's so easy to shrug your shoulders up to your ears and forget about them—you might even notice them tensed as you read this now. "The person with their shoulders up around their ears doesn't even know that's what they're doing. That's just how they move through the world," says Parker. It takes a conscious shift to unglue those shoulders from your earlobes (which we'll get into in a minute). Other common areas include:
- Head: Ever experienced a stress headache?
- Neck: Your neck holds tons of tension (it has to support your head, after all!), especially if you find yourself hunched over most of the day. Like the shoulders, it's one of the first areas you subconsciously tense up.
- Back: "That's a real common area," says Parker. Stress can affect your posture—so aching back muscles can signal some stored tension.
- Gut: Stress-induced stomachaches are very much real, says Parker. Remember: The gut and brain are interconnected1.
- Heart: "When you feel heartbroken, for example, you're not making it up," Parker notes. "It really hurts. Your chest really is hurting." In fact, she adds, "Emotional pain is just as painful as physical pain because emotional pain and physical pain share the same neural pathway."
How to release that tension.
OK, so you're storing stress in your body. Now what? Well, says Parker, the first step is identifying where you're holding on to that tension. "I ask people to body map—draw a picture of where you feel relaxed, and draw a picture of where you feel stressed," she explains. Then, she suggests cultivating an inner gaze: Close your eyes, paying attention to your breath, and focus on where you may be holding that stress. "Just pay attention to it," she notes. "You don't have to do anything about it. Just notice it."
After you've targeted the specific areas you want to focus on, Parker says to breathe awareness into that aspect of your body. Here's how: "Imagine you could feel any way in the whole, wide world that you want it to feel," she says. "And instead of thinking about what that is, just let that answer bubble up in you. And when you get an answer within yourself, imagine that you can breathe into that feeling. And when you exhale, breathe it out and let it surround you."
After that breathwork, Parker says there's usually some sort of release over time. "It doesn't happen instantly, but maybe within about 20 minutes, when the mind comes into stillness, the body relaxes, and it releases stress." That release also manifests differently for everyone—perhaps you feel an involuntary jerk or an emotional response like laughter, tears, or a rush of anger. Or your mind may become super busy—"mind chatter," as Parker calls it.
It can feel uncomfortable, but Parker recommends leaning in to that discomfort, as that's where true healing lies. "We think, 'Oh, goodie, I'm going to release stress. I'm going to feel great.' Well, you will, after the fact, but while it's happening, you may not." Learn to welcome the discomfort.
It's not as easy as it sounds—according to Parker, it takes practice to notice where you're feeling stress in your body. "That takes deep levels of mindfulness," she notes. "You have to learn how to be aware of your body and the signals that it's giving you." That said, it takes a bit of inner work to release stress from your body—and that's OK! Keep tuning in to your body and breath, and soon you'll be able to recognize when you're stressed—even if you don't feel particularly anxious in the moment.
Enjoy this episode and don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or Spotify!
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.