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.

14 responses to “The Body Tells Your Story: Body Armoring, Part I”

  1. Stephen Brown says:

    Yes, I can feel it. I am conscious of what your pointing to and it helps. Today I will practice noticing the tension and “try” to diminish it in my awareness. I am holding stress in my neck and shoulders.
    Thank you.

  2. Anne says:

    I’m saving this and passed it along to my daughter. We both work with trafficked girls and this might help them with some of the baggage they carry.

  3. Theresa Komarony says:

    Your article was very interesting to me. I have experienced chronic muscle contraction in my right hip/leg area since going through my divorce 4 years ago. I have tried myofacial release, acupuncture, massage, yoga, any many other things. I’m not sure where to go from here, but would like for this pain to be gone. Looking forward to more of your articles. Thank you

  4. Cheryl says:

    Very true, I developed scoliosis due to childhood trauma. It was my protective armor against sexual abuse.

  5. Eloise says:

    Thank you
    It’s so nice to get confirmation
    Some days it feels surreal, and I get so tired
    of dealing with this on a day to day basis.

    My husband is very supportive. But these days
    I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s the same old story. Feels like I won’t get out of
    the nasty cycle of body armoring

  6. Bernadete Tierney says:

    Yes i am in body armour, chronic tension since a child, but it has got worse due to domestic abuse in marriage and leaving it 18mths ago . i do not feel safe in world and in my body

  7. Gigi says:

    At 71, discovering this was my greatest aha! moment. Where do I go from here? PT? On line resources? Please don’t recommend a so called trauma trained therapist. Been there and my only experience has been to be re traumatized.

  8. Donna Saathoff says:

    I’ve had body armoring for over 40 years. I became legally disabled 20 years ago from it and continued to get worse until it involved my entire upper body,front and back. When the pain and stiffness began to affect my arms and hands, I had to figure it out because the dozens of providers I had seen had no clue. I wake at night with my arms and hands held like claws..being in constant muscle tension is so normal that it takes a great deal of mindfulness to relax. I’m trying so hard to heal but I’m already 72 and trauma ruined my life.

  9. Carmen Thomsen says:

    I am in awe of what I just read. I have never ever ever thought of my body pain in such a way – I’ve never heard of body armoring. Is it a newer concept? I am a BSW in Kansas. I believe I have gotten to the root or what is going on with me but how the heck do I get some relief to treat it!? I’d love to talk further!

    • Sarah Sherwood says:

      Hi Carmen, I’m so glad this was helpful information for you. The concept isn’t new, but is slowly becoming more widely accepted as we grow in our understanding of the brain and how the nervous system works. If you’d like to book a free discovery session consultation, you can grab a slot here:

      I hope to hear from you!

  10. Lynn says:

    Is weight gain sometimes a form of body armoring to protect one from sexual abuse? In other words if the person subconsciously perceives themselves to be ugly if they are fat, then they gain weight so that they will not be chosen as attractive enough to be abused?

    • Sarah Sherwood says:

      Hi! Yes, this is very common. When we cultivate more safety in our bodies, it can be easier to maintain a healthy weight.

  11. Danielle says:

    Please I need help, I have been doing this for at least 10yrs and my back is killing me. Seeing physio twice a week for muscle release. Need to go back to psychologist 😔 feel broken

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