Are you constantly tense but unsure why? There are many reasons unrelated to strenuous physical activity that can create tension in the body. But we don’t necessarily notice the tension on its own; we usually notice some of the consequences of prolonged tension depending on what each of our bodies tends to be susceptible to, including digestive issues, migraine, grinding our teeth at night or exhaustion. The more we learn about our own sources of tension, the more choices we may become aware of regarding how to create a better balance and find moments of ease.

Masking, in its many forms, is a significant factor in many people’s tension. It is a huge topic with many sub-topics, each deserving of their own in-depth exploration. I am going to briefly touch on some of these so you can delve further into the ones that connect most with your experience.

When I use the term “masking”, I mean anything that you are trying to hide from others, usually out of fear of judgement or potentially very significant economic repercussions. Some of this may be grounded in the reality of the way our society functions and the prejudices that people face. Some examples of what people may be masking: being neurodiverse, having a chronic illness, disability or mental health condition, having different belief systems compared with the majority of people in your workplace or professional group, having a different cultural background or religion from the majority (and often more powerful) group; in general, anything that makes us feel different and less than can lead to many people trying to avoid this discomfort by putting on a mask and showcasing a version of themselves that seems more “normal” or acceptable. It takes a lot of energy to put on this mask and maintain it, and often we will “power through” which we tend to do by tensing up and ignoring how we are really feeling, physically and emotionally. This leaves us with less energy to attend to other things as well potentially making it even harder for us to look after our unique needs.

Even if we are not masking mental health needs, the experience can lead to a lot of muscular tension and use up time and energy to get through difficult situations. Anxiety in particular has a big physiological impact on the body and chronic stress can get in the way of healthy functioning by interferring with sleep and digestion, which can further add to tension and worry. Speaking to your GP can be a good place to start for exploring treatment options but there are also many fantastic self help resources that you can work through in your own time. Treatment doesn’t necessarily get rid of the anxiety but it can help us to manage it better and to attend more to the different areas of our lives that matter most to us. Making any changes gradually and having regular forms of relaxation/soothing are really important elements of doing this in a compassionate way. Intense exercise can often be recommended as a way of using up the energy of anxiety but I would apply some caution to this as it needs to be balanced against sufficient soothing otherwise it may lead to additional problems.

And even if we are not trying to “pass” as a member of the majority group, experiences of very real prejudice, discrimination and abuse understandably can take their toll on people at the receiving end of this. This can include all of the microaggressions that we may have learned to smile at or ignore as a way of not causing a fuss because “they didn’t mean it like that” and we’re trying to rise above it. But it doesn’t just disappear from our minds and bodies and can leave us with even more tension if we are pretending not to be hurt, to be “strong”.

So what can we do about this? A lot of the problem is with society, unfortunately. And whilst it’s fantastic if you are able to get involved with activism, many people who have been on the receiving end of injustices do not necessarily have the energy to fight the fight. If you are an activist for social change, you can also add that to the list of things that may be leading to additional tension in your body. It is hard work. So we need to nurture ourselves. Choosing to focus on self care can be seen as bypassing the real work that needs doing in society but we need both because change is slow and our physical and mental health is being affected whilst we wait.

Let’s start with compassion. Compassion for ourselves, acknowledging that what we are facing is hard. Acknowledging that we are allowed to feel whatever we are feeling, even if irrational, and then to consider how best to respond. Sometimes we might need to speak up and be assertive, other times we might need to practise taking off that mask and allowing ourselves to just be as we are, irrespective of the judgements we may face. We may need to give ourselves permission to do less than other people in some areas of our lives because we are facing additional pressures and demands on our time and energy. We may need to find good quality soothing practices that fit our needs, preferences and circumstances. A mixture of all of those may be best.

If you’re not sure where to start with the above but feel it would be helpful to you, here are some suggestions (I have no affiliation with any of these resources except my own offerings):

Developing self-compassion and acknowledging difficult emotions: https://www.tarabrach.com/rain/ and https://self-compassion.org/

Developing assertiveness skills: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Assertiveness

Integrating soothing practices into your daily life: Insight Timer app, search online for five sense grounding technique, YouTube to look for relaxation or meditation resources, do something with arts and crafts, try a gentle yoga class, e.g. yin yoga or restorative.

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