The Body Tells Your Story: Body Armoring, Part I
by Sarah on September 13, 2016
I leaned over the kitchen counter while Michelle hovered over her coconut milk oatmeal, stirring it constantly to achieve the perfect consistency.
She looked over her shoulder and asked, “Did you do something to your face?”
“Ha!” I chortled. “Uh, well, no.” I replied with a smile. I thought it was an amusing, but very curious question. “What are you noticing?” I asked, coming a little closer. I assumed she was just sensing something general, like more peace and calm, but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless.
“I don’t know. You look more rested, or something. You look younger and like this part (pointing to her jaw and chin) softened. It’s like you have a baby doll face.”
I believe that our bodies express what’s happening in our inner landscape, so I chalked it up as a new internal “softening” expressing itself externally. We changed the subject and as I was gathering my things to head upstairs, it hit me.
I looked at her intently and said, “Actually, I did do something to my face!”
I put the pieces together for her as I recalled two somatic experiences I’d had over that week; both resulting in a release in my jaw and the muscles around my mouth and lips. What she was noticing was a literal, physical change in my facial structure as a result of my muscles letting go of old, long held neural tension patterns. My jaw had changed positions altering the shape of my face. Over the next few weeks I noticed friends who know me well give me a funny look, squint their eyes and ask, “Did you do something to your hair?” or “Have you lost weight?” When I pointed out it was, in fact, my “new face” they weren’t sure what to think, but couldn’t deny it was true.
These long held tension patterns are called “body armoring”. Armoring can be defined as chronic patterns of involuntary tension in the body that dampen or block emotional expression, alter perception of both the outer and the inner psychological world, diminish or eliminate kinesthetic awareness and other sensations, and resist range of motion and movement (Greene and Goodrich-Dunn).
Body armoring is different from waking up with a crick in your neck or creating tension in your low back from raking leaves. It has a chronic and resistant nature that reflects the psychological defenses from which it originates. To protect itself from perceived threat, the body takes a defensive, tight, tense stance; bracing itself for what is coming. The body doesn’t differentiate between bracing for a car accident, a wounding word from a bully, or the absence of presence from our caretakers as children.
These defense responses happen involuntarily and most often outside awareness. Common protective (defensive) survival responses include: shallow/restricted breathing, raised shoulders, tightened jaw, clenched fists, tense focus and pressure in the eyes, grinding teeth, restless legs, fidgeting, and numbness or feeling disconnected.
Scientific studies give proof that somatic (of the body) and visceral (felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body; gut) feedback is critical in the experience and/or repression of emotion. Body armoring can disconnect different parts of the body from awareness, may cause a person to experience the body as anesthetized, or even have the sense that they are invisible, thereby cutting us off from our full range of life experience.
Kinesthetic awareness is critical in knowing how we feel and attunement to these sensations is a building block of self-perception. When we are disconnected from our felt sense because of the effects of body armoring, there is a direct breakdown in our ability to know who we are, what we want and need, resulting in difficulty determining what our direction in life should be.
The converse is also true. Body armoring can create a heightened or hyper awareness of sensation creating a constant experience of pain. We may become flooded with awareness of a certain area of the body, or generalized pain, limiting our capacity to take in our life experience. These neural tension patterns are automatic and the contraction/restriction in the soft tissue is triggered when we respond to stress in our current situation.
A common expression of this is raising our shoulders when in a stressful situation. This is a primal impulse to protect ourselves by making us appear bigger, even though it may have no modern day impact on the computer screen that’s been hovering over us for 10 hours or the deadline that is breathing down our neck. This involuntary response often leads to discomfort between the shoulder blades, neck pain and stiffness, and headaches that originate from the base of the skull. A consistent amount of stress will create a chronic experience of pain.
The good news, as expressed in my own story above, is that although these patterns may be unconscious and involuntary they don’t have to be permanent. Interested in learning more? Contact me for a free consultation about Somatic Experiencing, a trauma/stress resolution modality that can release armor patterns in your body.
Check back for Part II of this series, as we look at how body armoring develops.