What is muscle rigidity?
Your body is a miraculous machine for coping with stress. But, like any machine, it occasionally manifests a bug–a bug that can turn into a serious problem.
When you face stress, your trusty allies, your muscles, contract and tense. They become rigid as your body prepares to fight or flee whatever stressor you’re facing. In this way, your body is trying to keep you alive. You may not be facing a threat to your life when a client or your boss yells at you, but your body doesn’t know the difference. When that stressor passes, your muscles are supposed to relax, because everything is fine.
But what if everything isn’t fine? Suppose, after being yelled at by a client, you start to drive home and almost get into an accident? Or find that you’re overdrawn in your bank account? Suddenly, your muscles are tensing up yet again. If this level of stress keeps up, your body will get the message to always be ready to defend itself, keeping your muscles rigid and tense. While many of your muscles may relax as the stressor passes, some of them may stay rigid in an effort to keep you alive.
This can happen whether the stress is unexpected, or if you intentionally inflict stress on your body through exercise.
Suddenly the friendly muscles that have been trying to keep you alive have become your enemy. Not only are they not really helping you survive, they’re making everything worse. As the stress continues, more and more of your muscles become tense and rigid. This can develop into debilitating chronic pain. It can affect your posture and create a chain reaction of tension as your body twists itself into a knot trying to stay ready for whatever fresh hell you might be in for.
What’s even more insidious is that you may not even notice this happening until it manifests as a persistent pain. This rigidity and tension can build up in your body, filling your senses with a kind of tense “noise” you eventually stop noticing. After all, you’re too busy pleasing your boss, avoiding car accidents, and balancing the checkbook, right? The busyness of life can easily make you ignore the stress and tension that’s mounting in your body until it manifests as some pain or disease that won’t be ignored. Unless you do something about it.
Those of you who have received massages before may understand this from personal experience. As your massage therapist releases tension throughout your body, may help you discover mucles you didn’t even know were there. As rigid muscles are gently encouraged to become soft and smooth, little pains that have become like background noise are suddenly, blessedly silenced.
Book your next massage when you’re done reading this.
There are several ways to prevent a build up of muscle rigidity caused by stress. Our favorite, of course, is regular massage, but even that isn’t a complete solution. In any case, not everyone can afford regular massage (though it might not be as out-of-reach as you might think).
Mindfulness is key. Do things that will strengthen your mind-body connection. You can start with something as simple as turning off all distractions during your meals. The point is to help yourself become more aware of your body and what messages it’s sending you, to tune in enough so that you can detect persistent tension and small pain signals coming from your muscles and connective tissues.
Exercise, however moderate, can dramatically reduce muscle rigidity and tension. Yes, exercise can be stressful on your body. It’s supposed to be! Inflicting moderate stress on your joints, muscles, and heart in this way helps your body be more agile in coping with the every-day stressors and hassles that come your way. Remember, though, to consciously and deliberately relax your muscles after tensing them in that systematic way. Stretching is a great way to do this, but there are other methods you can do any time.
Progressive relaxation is a guided meditation practice that helps you turn your attention to each muscle group in turn, breathing deeply. Your guide talks you through putting each muscle group through a slight tension and then relaxation, literally from head to toe. Many of these exercises can be found for free on YouTube. There are several excellent recordings done by psychiatrists and other professionals available for sale at a very reasonable price. It usually only takes 10 to 30 minutes, and is well worth the effort. It’s almost as good as getting a massage, and can even be a great way to help you sleep better.
Massage, exercise, and progressive relaxation are the primary ways to cope with stress-induced muscle rigidity, but more important than these is to try to manage the amount of stress in your life. This might entail some dramatic lifestyle changes as you try to slow your pace and live your more deliberately and with a stronger mind-body connection. If you’ve recently experienced a series of dramatic or traumatic life events, the psychological component may also need to be addressed with the help of mental health professionals.
But why bother? You feel fine, right? Do you, though? Check in with your body regularly. What does it need? What do you feel from day to day? Nobody lives in bliss all the time, but you’re not supposed to be totally miserable all the time, either. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is sending you signals to make a change in order to help you survive. Listen to that, and take to heart some of the suggestions above.
As with everything on this blog, none of this information should be construed as medical advice or care. The employees of The Good Life Massage, including the writers and editor of this blog, are not medical doctors. Consult with your physician before making any changes to improve your health.
Note: stress is not the only cause of muscle rigidity. It can be a symptom of a number of diseases including Parkinson’s, tetanus, multiple sclerosis, and many more. This post refers only to muscle rigidity caused by stress. You may need to consult your doctor for chronic pain or stress that won’t go away through some of the means described in this post.
Tom Gunn is the marketing director and blog editor for The Good Life Massage. You can hire him to help develop your brand, logo, and content marketing strategy by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org