Where Stress Gets Stuck in the Body—And How to Release It

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: September 16, 2015


Reviewed by: Lauren Roxburgh

Where Stress Gets Stuck in the Body—And How to Release It
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In a new video collaboration, Lauren Roxburgh, structural integration and alignment specialist—and our resident fascia and pelvic floor authority—teams up with a medium, meditation leader, and author of Intuitive Being, Jill Willard to help us manage stress depending on how we react to it in the body. In her ongoing body work with clients, Roxburgh says she can actually see and feel stress stuck in the body—and that it tends to build up in five areas, depending on how each individual responds to stress (i.e. are you a jaw clencher or do you hunch your shoulders?); Roxburgh calls these five areas the stress containers.

Together with Willard, who brings her deep knowledge of the mind/body/spirit intersection and the nature of energy movement within the body (as in chi), Roxburgh explains how stress gets stuck in the body, what it does once stuck there, and how to treat each of the five areas it gets stuck in.

The Stress Containers

The great American comedian George Burns once said, “If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.” Burns should know—he was one hundred years old and still working when he died in 2006.

Chronic stress has been called “the silent killer.” It compromises our immune system and it’s increasingly recognized by Western medicine as a major contributor to some of the most persistent and chronic diseases of our time, like heart disease, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s, depression, and more.

It’s also a fact that it’s increasingly harder to avoid excess and constant stress. Too many of us live our lives in a constant white-knuckled, jaw-clenched state with our adrenals working overtime—all of which results in stored toxins and blocked energy (or chi). We become physically, mentally, and emotionally stagnated, and our systems slow down.

It’s important to understand that stress is a reaction—we can choose how to react to stressful situations. Lugging emotions, trauma, guilt, resentment, and memories with us can compound day-to-day stress, to further age us, wreak havoc on our bodies and health, and result in serious long-term consequences, such as excess weight, anxiety, and even physical pain and poor posture.

What Are the Stress Containers?

If excess stress is becoming almost impossible to avoid, the million-dollar question is: How do we best deal with it? As a structural integration and alignment specialist, my work is very hands on—I’ve spent more than fifteen years in my “lab,” working intimately with people, observing and kinesthetically feeling the effects of excess stress on the body, spirit, and ultimately lives of my clients. One thing I’ve discovered is that the effects of chronic stress generally show up in five specific areas of the body. I call these areas the “stress containers” because they’re where stress gets stuck, congests, and intensifies; and where it gets literally contained within the body. The good news is twofold: We all have the ability to build awareness around how we react or respond to stress, and we can all take steps to eliminate stress that’s being stored in these “containers” within the body.

The five areas are the jaw/neck/face, the shoulders/heart, the diaphragm/lungs, the stomach/gut, and the pelvic floor/hips. What I’ve observed in literally thousands of clients is that stuck stress manifests itself in blockages, pain, tension, and rigidity in the fascia or connective tissue; it can actually be felt as I work on these parts of the body.

Jill Willard, my dear friend and incredibly gifted intuitive, has insight on the spiritual and emotional aspects of this stress: Our body and spirit are made up of energy, and energy must be in motion and flowing to stay vital and clear. This is e-motion. So much energy is held in our joints and tissues, especially stress and emotions from the past that we haven’t worked through. Letting go and being in the moment are the keys to reducing stress. The physical body is always trying to release emotion; if we don’t express it, that energy gets stuck in our joints, tissues, and organs—and stagnates within the body.

Here’s a video to introduce the series that follows about how to release stress from the major areas where it gets stuck:

How to Release Stress from the Body

Every person deals with and holds stress differently; where you hold yours depends on how your body reacts to the factors that cause stress in the first place—whether that is tightness, stiff joints, tension, trauma, fears, worries, or other symptoms.

As Jill explains: Activating the “being” and intuitive side of our brain helps calm and support our more busy, thinking side. We talk ourselves into some pretty illusionary scenarios based on old, unfinished situations, tension, and fear. To connect with our intuitive side, we begin by asking ourselves to pay more attention to our internal dialogue, and to our tightness. Closed mind, closed body. I regularly encourage my clients to trust in their inner awareness and ability to self-heal. From this place, we begin to notice our body’s signs.

1. Releasing Tension in the Jaw, Neck, Face

For those who hold stress in the neck and jaw region, the reaction to stress is to clench the jaw and grind the teeth, which in turn tightens and compresses the neck, pulling the head forward. In extreme cases, this causes headaches or even migraines, chronic teeth grinding, deep frown lines in the forehead, and shortened, tight, and painful neck muscles.

Jill shares more: Stress often settles in this area when we are thinking too much about and/or fearing a current situation because we’re bringing the past in. Learning to use intuitive meditation and mantras that calm the brain allows energy to flow through our body. Flow leads to glow.

In the below video, we share a few ways to help release and move accumulated stress and blocked energy from the jaw, neck, and face:

2. Releasing Tension in the Shoulders & Chest

The old saying, “having the weight of the world on your shoulders,” is apt here. When life gets hectic, physical tension and emotional irritability are often stored in the shoulder area: Our shoulders start rounding forward or lifting toward the ears, the head starts jutting forward, and we develop a compressed, defeated posture.

In this next video we give you some easy and effective ways to clear the shoulders, chest, and heart both physically and emotionally:

3. Releasing Tension in the Diaphragm & Lungs

If you hold stress in your diaphragm, the reaction is to hunch forward, almost as if you were subconsciously trying to duck from the factors causing stress, hunching your shoulders to block it out. The result: The chest becomes constricted and the lungs are not fully expanded. We can end up feeling slightly out of breath, generally defeated, and exhausted.

Jill explains: This reaction is often based in fear—shying away from personal power and feeding on panic. It’s fear that we will actually tap into our heart—and feel! And this fear of emotion prevents us from feeling powerful and inspired.

The following video offers a few simple ways to help release accumulated stress from the diaphragm and lungs:

4. Releasing Tension in the Gut & Stomach

If you tend to hold stress in this area, it can manifest as gut issues.

Jill calls the gut our power source: The stomach is sensitive, smart, and powerful. It feeds our nerves both figuratively and literally; it is the master hand of the gut instinct and the key to living on our own without fear. Often what shows up in readings is that people who hold stress in the gut and stomach do not feel powerful, and they are not letting change in.

In this next video, we explain how to release stress from the belly:

5. Releasing Tension in the Pelvic Floor & Hips

The fifth stress container is the pelvic floor. Holding stress here can cause lower back pain, tight hips, and a disconnection from your deep core. Many of us have lost our connection to this webbing of muscles and connective tissue. We’ve also lost the ability to mindfully connect and relax the area, so as life goes on, we continue to lose more connectivity, tone, and resilience. When we reverse this loss and the pelvic floor is neuromuscularly connected, we learn how to let go and surrender, and the hips follow, becoming more fluid, flexible, and lighter.

As Jill says: The hips are the root element that connect to our basic needs being met, our sense of security and physical freedom. Many people carry old pain, leftover memories or illusions, or old (at times ancient) disappointments in their hips.

In this last video we show you how to release accumulated stress and build resilience in the pelvic floor and hips:

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

Related: How to Handle Stress