Mind over tension

by Allison Van Ommen
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We all know that tension is what causes tension headaches, hence the name; but what are the forces that cause tension in the first place? And how do we avoid that dreaded ache in our heads?

Tension can build up in our bodies over time, starting with a bit of tightness in our hamstrings. Perhaps it moves up to the middle back until eventually it creeps into the neck and shoulders. Then you find yourself grinding your teeth at night and waking up with a headache in the morning.

Tension comes from the Latin word tendere and has multiple meanings in different contexts:

  • The state of being stretched tight, the strained state of muscles causing strain and discomfort.
  • Mental or emotional strain; strained political or social relationships.
  • Apply force to something that tends to stretch it.

There are many variations in the meaning of the word ‘tension’, depending on the context in which the word is used. The first meaning is pretty straightforward and to be expected. The second meaning changes the way in which we approach a tension headache and to some extent so does the third.

So how does a mental/emotional/social or political strain affect how we hold ourselves?

It isn’t just the muscles that hold tension – remember the muscles are an extension of the mind and vice versa. Have you ever walked into an office after two colleagues have been fighting and realised you could feel the tension in the air?

Immediately your body responds to what you feel and you automatically tense to guard yourself without conscious thought. The
same occurs when you are learning a new language or trying to wrap your head around a new concept. Your body strains to remember something or tightens to hold onto something, even if it is just holding on to a thought and not an object. This can be related back to highly stressful jobs where you are expected to multitask – what tension are you holding in your body trying to remember all the things you need to do in your daily working life?

Relationship/cultural strains within an office can affect how we hold ourselves at work; how do you feel when you walk into your workplace? Is it a relaxing place where you feel safe? Or can you cut the tension with a knife? Is the office so busy and stressed that it feels like everything is bursting at the seams?


Sometimes the pressure isn’t like pulling a rope or a muscle; sometimes pressure is an external force that we cannot see, like deadline pressures. It is still pressure and every person responds differently to those external forces depending on perception.

Perception is relative to what is going on around you and inside you. Your perception is influenced by not just what happens at work, but at home as well. Tension can build up in different ways as a result of different perceived pressures.

Something that you perceive as pressure may not be perceived this way by a colleague and vice versa. It is important to acknowledge these differences between colleagues within the workplace and have compassion towards your colleagues because you never actually know what pressure someone is under unless you communicate with compassion.

Pressure is not just confined to the external, it can arise internally too from how well you treat yourself by eating the right foods, allowing enough sleep and by participating in activities to decrease stress levels. If stress does get on top of you at times and you find yourself eating all the wrong foods and not sleeping, this can also add to the pressure you feel.

Another aspect to consider is how kind you are to yourself. Is your internal dialogue hostile or is your internal dialogue kind and nurturing? A good test of this is to ask yourself if you would speak to a close friend the way in which you speak to yourself?

All of these facets of life add to the ‘perceived pressures’ that we all face in our daily lives and contribute to tensions that we hold in our bodies and minds, which can build up over time and present as a tension headache.

In the workplace, be mindful of your colleagues’ ‘perceived pressures’ and perhaps cut them some slack, because when you offer support within your team then tensions can be eased and perhaps tension headaches can be managed and prevented.

Tension headaches are the most common form of headaches and are characterised by:

  • constant tight sensation around the head near the temporal bones usually felt on both sides of the head and neck
  • tightness in upper back and shoulders
  • associated with depression and anxiety
  • difficulty sleeping, and
  • trouble concentrating.

Triggers that are associated with tension headaches are:

  • most commonly poor posture
  • prolonged computer work
  • medication, and
  • stress and fatigue.

To manage and prevent tension headaches, make sure that you stretch and exercise regularly, and nourish your body with good food and thoughts. It is the little things that make the biggest difference over time.

Dr Allison Van Ommen is an osteopath based in South Melbourne at Without Limits Health and Osteopathy. She is a former elite water polo athlete, having played in the European Professional Water Polo league.

This article also appears in the December/January issue of Facility Management magazine

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