An intrinsic part of the fight-or-flight response is muscle tension. When muscles tighten, they also shorten. One way to reverse the fight-or-flight response is to lengthen your muscles. This is accomplished quite simply by stretching the muscles. Our goal here is not to provide a comprehensive manual on stretching exercises, but we would like to teach you several critical stretches that can help reduce or prevent tension headaches and mention some guidelines for stretching intuitively.

Intuitive Stretching

As you cultivate body awareness and relaxation, you will notice an urge to stretch your body in various ways. Many people notice that yawning is accompanied by an almost instinctual urge to lean back and extend one's arms. We are very aware of the need to stretch after sitting in a car or at a desk for a prolonged period of time. Anyone who has dogs or cats can watch them stretch when they awaken or when they anticipate they will go for a walk. While it is a good idea to read a manual on stretching or to take a yoga class to learn a specific routine, your body is actually a very good guide to this procedure if you pay attention to it. After all, someone figured this stuff out without referring to a textbook. Nor has anyone found the family dog curled up in front of the fireplace with an autographed copy of The Auto-biography of a Yogi. This information is inside you. The following are guidelines for intuitive stretching:

  • Set up a comfortable environment for your practice. This might include soft music.

  • It is always easier to stretch muscles when they are warm. Thus, some light exercise such as walking until you begin to break a sweat is recommended. Another alternative would be to stretch after or while in a hot shower.

  • Stretch on a firm padded surface, such as an exercise mat.

  • Pay attention to what you are doing. It should not hurt when you stretch. Pain is a sure signal that you are doing something with too much intensity or in a direction that your body was not meant to accommodate. Progress in stretching will come rapidly, within weeks, but it is accomplished in small, incremental steps. Stretch and move your body until you feel a solid pull on the muscles and maintain that position as long as you feel comfortable. Return to your original position slowly.

  • Move slowly, and do not bounce into any stretch.

  • Do not hold your breath while stretching, but keep your breath flowing. Visualize or sense your breath carrying oxygen to the areas being stretched. See and sense them loosening.

  • Rest for a short time after each stretch.

  • At the end of your stretching period, take time to cool down and relax. An excellent time to do a breathing meditation or progressive relaxation is following stretching.

  • While it is optimal to do a set stretch routine on a daily basis, do not limit your stretching to only one time or place. There are many moments throughout the day—at your desk, stopped in your car, and so on—when you can relieve the stress and tension in certain muscle groups with a quick stretch.

Stretches to Reduce or Prevent Tension Headaches

Muscles that are not strong and flexible tend to spasm and create pain. The muscles that support the head and neck are difficult to deliberately strengthen. These muscles are also intensely involved in the fight-or-flight response, as primates tend to pull their shoulders up to protect their necks and appear bigger when threatened. Over time, chronic tension shortens these muscles and leads to tension headaches. We have found several very simple exercises to be excellent for preventing tension headaches. These stretching exercises are most easily done in a standing position, but can also be done while sitting by moving up to the front edge of a chair or bed. Our favorite place to do this particular set of exercises is in a warm shower. Please follow the illustrations so that you stretch safely. Remember, no fast movements and no pain. Begin by placing both of your hands on your hips with your thumbs in front of your body and your remaining fingers on your lower back. Next, pull your shoulders back slightly. You are now in the correct position to begin.

Stretch 1

Fix your eyes on a point at eye level in front of you. While maintaining that visual anchor, move your head to the right as if you were attempting to touch your right ear to your right shoulder, as shown in Figure 1. You will feel the muscles stretching on the left side of your neck and shoulders. Hold this position while breathing for ten to twelve seconds, and then repeat this movement to the left (Figure 2). Repeat the complete sequence three times.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Stretch 2

From the start position, turn your head to the right as if you are looking over your shoulder and trying to see something behind you, as shown in Figure 3. Do not turn from the waist, but swivel your head from the neck up. Turn as far as you can without pain and hold this position for ten to twelve seconds while continuing to breathe. Then repeat the motion to the left (Figure 4). Repeat the entire sequence three times.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

Caution: If your head should rotate completely around and face forward again, you should call a priest immediately. You may need an exorcist instead of stress reduction!

Stretch 3

The third stretch is clearly the geekiest of the stretches and definitely provokes laughter whenever we train people in its use. (This is also why we recommend doing these stretches in the shower.) Beginning from the starting position, push your face straight out as if you were trying to touch your nose to a point in space about three inches directly in front of your nose, as shown in Figure 5. You will feel the stretch at the back of your head, neck, and shoulders. You will also look like a chicken pecking for corn! Continue breathing, even if people are laughing at you. Hold this for ten to twelve seconds. Then reverse this movement, as if you were trying to pull your face and nose directly back from a really bad smell (Figure 6). You will tend to feel this stretch more in front of your neck and chest. Repeat this three times. You may now get out of the shower.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

All kidding aside, if you are prone to muscle tension headaches, regular practice of these stretches will help elongate, strengthen, and loosen up the muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders. As a result, you can significantly decrease the frequency and severity of tension headaches and perhaps eliminate them altogether.

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