June 27, 2023

The Connection Between Trauma and Tension and How to Release It

Thomas Hübl explores how tension is a physical manifestation of undigested trauma, and how we can begin to release tension by becoming more in tune with our emotions. Trauma responses can cause us to feel angry, overwhelmed, numb, and disconnected from the present moment. Thomas explains the importance of recognizing these signs of dysregulation without judgment. Moments of stress can guide us toward the emotions that we need to address and digest, serving as opportunities for us to better understand our inner worlds. He also provides tools to help regulate the nervous system and find presence during difficult moments and walks us through the 3-Sync Meditation technique.

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“We need to access the stress in our body in order to calm our mind.”

- Thomas Hübl

Guest Information

Thomas Hübl

Thomas Hübl is a renowned teacher, author, and international facilitator whose work integrates the core insights of the great wisdom traditions and mysticism with the discoveries of science. Since the early 2000s, he has been facilitating large-scale events and courses that focus on meditation and mindfulness-based awareness practices, as well as the healing and integration of trauma.

His non-profit organization, The Pocket Project, works to support the healing of collective trauma throughout the world. He is the author of the book Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.

His next book Attuned: Practicing Interdependence to Heal Our Trauma—and Our World will be published September 12, 2023 by Sounds True and is available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Bookshop, and more!

For more information, visit thomashuebl.com

Notes & Resources

Key points discussed in this episode include:

  • How to use a breath practice when tension is arising in order to regulate the nervous system and become grounded
  • Overthinking is a sign of stress, but just trying to quiet the mind isn’t enough–we need to access the stress in our bodies to effectively calm the mind
  • A trauma response can be severe, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s an intelligent adaptation that created a sense of safety in overwhelming moments. Creating safety in the present moment works to undo these responses.
  • The concept of Wu-Wei from the Tao Te Ching, and how being in the “flow” of life creates interconnection and happiness
  • Meditation helps us to get to know our inner landscape, which helps us learn to regulate stress, increasing the capacity of the nervous system

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome to the Point of Relation. My name is Thomas Hübl and today I will explore with you how trauma and stress in our life and maybe stress and tension in our life are connected and maybe a little bit how we can work through that.
Let’s first understand a little bit about the correlation between my current experience. So when I get really stressed, when I’m in difficult situations, when I become reactive, it looks like there’s a charge in me or there is a tension in me and I’m kind of overreacting given the current situation. But for me, the current situation really is disturbing. When we begin to explore, we see wow, actually there’s much more charge in me than certain situations when I’m reactive, really demanding of me. So that charge is not connected to the situation and often it’s repetitive. Another person with a similar character or with a similar personality or another situation triggers similar feelings and similar stress in me again. So I notice that I am in a repetitive pattern, and that’s exactly what trauma creates because the experience that we have is overwhelming and the trauma response is my inner answer to it and my answer to an overwhelming experience is a lot of stress and often so much stress that we cannot digest and we shut down a part of ourselves.

We notice actually that we are really stressed when we feel at a high level of stress, which means also like the fight and flight mechanism in ourselves. And we also notice when we are stressed when we’re numb. So some people, when they’re stressed, they actually become indifferent and become numb. They don’t participate anymore. They feel distant. But that’s also a sign of stress. Often that part of the stress comes with a lot of tension in the body because to shut down stress, we need to contract. So all the places in our body where we feel tension or where we feel tight, all of that is actually undigested past, undigested stress, undigested emotional experience, and undigested trauma.

So when people say, “Oh, I have a tight neck or my solar plexus is tight or my legs are tight or my belly is tight, my chest is tight” – this time we notice that there is an unspoken and unexperienced past showing up in us. Now we might be very open and in a lovely conversation with somebody and the person says something or somebody says something in the meeting to us and then we feel ooh, I feel a tight throat. I don’t know how to respond. I feel a tight heart. I feel a bit distant.
So who tightened the chest? Who tightened the throat? Who tightened the muscles of my neck or my lower back so that now I feel tense or I feel some pain? Often we don’t know. Because that tension lives in the past.

We often say, “Oh, I feel tight now.” But what we actually experience is that the past is showing up at that moment. And it’s like when you see a movie and then you see a commercial on top of your movie. So you go to the cinema, you watch a movie, and after one hour in the movie, you see commercials or new movies. So you can’t really differentiate what’s the commercial and what’s the movie. It’s how we feel in difficult moments. The past is the commercial on top of the current experience.

So we are afraid, we feel ashamed, we feel angry, we feel numb and disconnected and we can’t properly respond to what’s happening right now. And that’s an inner state that many people experience. Sometimes every day. I can become aware of when that starts to happen in myself when I feel dysregulated or overstressed, often traumatic stress coming up in those moments, and I can learn to slowly self-regulate or regulate my nervous system better by first creating awareness, then maybe having a practice like connecting to my breath, connecting to my body, feeling the parts of my body where I feel usually pleasant and grounded and well. Some tingling or aliveness. And then I learned to use my breath as a regulation function. So when I breathe, I connect with my breath. I feel the breath in my body. I begin to slow down my exhalations a bit. When I slow down my exhalations I can feel my body more, and then I can feel my body and the stress.

And if I identify how stress shows up in me, some people become restless and people need to go all the time to the phone or do something that doesn’t allow them to relax. Some people, when we sit down and we want to be quiet, we overthink all the time. So overthinking is a sign of stress. So people try to quieten their mind when they think too much, when actually we need to get access to the stress in our bodies to calm our minds.

We need to learn in moments that are easier or in practice moments, why do we practice building resources for the moments where we need those resources when it’s more difficult? So I need regular practice to get to know my body from the inside, to feel that my body feels pleasant and to enjoy the pleasant parts of my body, and to enjoy sitting.

Even when we look at it, enjoyment, is like enjoying a nice sunset. You cannot enjoy a sunset when you are completely busy inside with all the mails that you didn’t write or the phone calls that you didn’t make, everything that hasn’t happened, or everything that happened, it bothered you. You can’t enjoy it. In order to enjoy, we need to have a certain level of regulation. That I can sit even on a very busy day. I sit in, I have 5 minutes, a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, and then just enjoy the moment, I’m sitting in a coffee shop. Enjoy the scenery, enjoy the moment, enjoy my body, enjoy the air. I enjoy the birds singing and I’m absorbing more and more of the richness of my experience. And that’s deeply recharging, deeply joyful.

When you experience a beautiful sunset. The sunset is beautiful because you are there. But when we are really busy with ourselves so when we don’t feel good inside, the sunset is also there. But also “there” means we are not fully present. We are absorbed in our past. And that’s not good or bad because what does trauma say? Trauma says here in space and time in the traumatic moment. Here in space and time. It’s no good for me. And really strongly overwhelming, painful experiences happen here in space and time. It’s not good for us.

So dispersing space and time, being somewhere else, or being in the past or the future is better than being in the present moment. So that’s a very important defense mechanism. Trauma response is a very intelligent function. It saves us in deeply overwhelming moments and it has sometimes severe side effects. When we get to know ourselves, sometimes we judge ourselves for not being present versus bringing more attention to the intelligence of being present. And then we begin to notice the symptoms, like overthinking, constantly being in the future, and trying to control outcomes. Trying to figure out all the possibilities that can happen. And then I see, wow, a lot of that is based on stress running too fast. Or being too slow means to be detached, but in a way of numbness, of dissociation, in a way of distancing oneself from the world. Being indifferent.

And so being overstressed or being overstressed through numbness or tension in the body are both signs that I am not synchronized with the original movement of my life. And both create side effects. Pushing life too much creates side effects and resisting or slowing down life creates side effects, like when you put your hand in the river and you go as fast as the river flows. You don’t feel any pressure, not on this side of your hand and not on the other side of your hand. But if you push the water, you feel pressure, and if you resist the water flow, you also feel pressure. That’s what Daodejing calls Wu Wei. “Non-action is to be as fast as the river.” It doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything, we don’t just push and we don’t resist. We are in the movement of life, and that’s what many people call it flow state.

And then when I mean, our life flows, we are usually happy. Why? Because we feel. As a part of life in a flow state. I don’t feel separate. And in the flow state, I am an integral part of life. I’m not just looking at life. I’m in life.
NBC Sports teams in flow states, their performance is much higher because many players share a flow state to a collective flow state. And so in order to transform the stress and the tension, how do we work with tension in the body? We get to know our attention parents first.

So the first step is to create awareness. We get to know our stress levels, and awareness. So I pay attention and I get stressed and I don’t stretch it, and I pay attention to situations I become reactive in or become triggered or difficult. I get really stressed and overcharged, and then we’re over-activated. And then I begin to get to know my resources within my resources. So the parts of myself that I feel well. These are people in my life that I feel safe with. These are situations or aspects in my life I like and I feel connected to. This can be nature, this can be music, this can be other things, art, anything that resources me is my capacity to downregulate stress.

So I need some land resources to also partly stand-on kind of shaky ground because I don’t fully drown in the shaky ground. I had learned from my practice to feel my body, recall this also the three sync meditation in our practice, which means it starts with our breath. Short screenshot of my experience. And then I go take some breaths and connect to my body. Every time I exhale, I feel my body a bit more and I search for the place and ground and open parts.

My body notices where I feel loveliness, energy streaming flowing. I can feel that well, I can say, “Okay, what’s my current stress level?” And then actually both the parts where I’m grounded in my stress, it’s possible. Slow a bit down my exhalation. I ground my stress, I guess. Electricity or activation grounds itself and the soil. Groundedness. I stay with this for a minute or two. I know the activation will slowly come down. I can check in with my emotional state. What’s my emotional state? Joyful and anxious. It’s sad. Something. Maybe I cannot tell. And then I notice they don’t feel my emotional experience. And I noticed that there’s a bit of a numbness under there. Not trying to fix it. The opposite. I can see the activity in my mind. Very active, tight, and open. calm. I notice that which is aware of all those experiences. I notice the awareness of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Do some inner space that I have to witness my experience.

As I get to know my inner world and if I do it every day for 5, 10, 15 minutes and sometimes also for a minute throughout the day, like a minute, practice a few times a day that I can do anywhere. I get to know my inner world more. And that helps me to learn to regulate my stress, and the more I do it, the more my nervous system grows to capacity. And it also is true for tension that in the natural tension I can feel the areas that are tight. And then I go, okay, is there any emotion? And often we see, no, I don’t feel any emotion. So then I learn to honor that in those areas a bit numb.

I don’t feel myself, which means in that area there is some overwhelm. I don’t see that as a dysfunction, but it’s a function of something that my body was able to manage in stressful or overwhelming situations. Or maybe as a child, I went through overwhelming moments, and tightening up was the way to regulate myself. Because everything else was too much. And now I learned to compassionately and lovingly begin to relate to those areas in myself and slowly turn tension into emotion. Tension into emotion or felt stress and emotion and begin to digest those. And the more I do that and feel that my body becomes a bit more fluid, more open and I will also have more space and time.

So I hope it’s a short journey. Of course, there’s so much more to say about it. And if that’s interesting to you, you can also check out my new book that’s coming out on September 12th. It’s called Attuned. Many Practices but also a deeper exploration of the topic of attunement, relationships, the healing power of relationships, trauma and stress, and how we can create a world where we can heal together. And so thank you for listening to the Point of Relation, my podcast, and I’ll see you soon.