Many people may not know this about me, but I actually suffer from chronic upper back problems that were directly caused by my work as a freelancer. A combination of long hours, late nights, bad posture, and poor environment led to a ten-year battle with pain that ranges daily from annoying to aggressive.
Part of the reason I started following a regular exercise regimen was to strengthen the weak postural muscles in my back and wrists that were injured by my work. As such, I have a particular affinity for this topic, and a desire to help my fellow professionals avoid some of the same problems. In my experience, there are actually several locations on the body where our use of devices leads to soreness and tension in our muscles, joints, and tendons.
Using some common mindfulness practices, we can get in touch with our bodies and help identify where we are carrying our stress.
1. Furrowed Forehead/Eyebrows
That look of intense concentration when we’re working on solving a complex coding issue or carefully correcting design details is actually building up a lot of tension in our forehead and eyebrows. When we are deep in thought or solving problems, we tend to engage the muscles of our face. This can be compounded by any existing vision issues that cause us to squint or strain to see, whether those triggers are external (screen brightness too high in a dark room or too low in a bright room) or internal (poorly focused or out of date corrective lenses, or uncorrected vision problems).
Mindfulness break: Relax your forehead by moving your face into a neutral position, feeling your eyebrows lift upwards and the muscles on your face (including the nose and forehead) disengage. It may help to lightly close your eyes while doing this. Notice any soreness or tension built up in your eyes, forehead, sinuses, or temples.
2. Clenched Jaw
Often, feelings of stress and anxiety cause us to clench our jaws without even realizing we are doing it. Sometimes, if there is an underlying issue with chronic stress or poor sleeping patters, we even grind our teeth at night, leading us to wake up with jaw soreness. All of this adds up to a lot of tension being carried in the jaw.
Mindfulness break: Relax your jaw by moving your upper teeth away from your lower teeth. Allow your jaw to become slack, leaving the lips together or letting them to part slightly. Relax your tongue by moving it away from the roof of your mouth and allowing it to rest. Notice any soreness or tension built up in the sides or front of your jaw.
3. Craned Neck
Between looking down at our phones and leaning forward to see the words on our screens, our heads spend a lot of time in front of our bodies rather than resting on top of our neck. This can be exacerbated by using a laptop sitting in our laps (causing us to look down) or if our screens are placed too far away or using elements on the screen that are too small (causing us to lean forward in order to see more clearly).
Mindfulness break: Sit up with good posture in a neutral position and lift your head to sit back on the top of your neck. It may help to imagine pushing the head backwards with your chin moving in a straight line towards the back of your skull. Notice any tension or soreness built up in the sides or back of your neck.
4. Hunched Shoulders
While we are typing on our physical or on-screen keyboards, we have a tendency to bring our shoulders up towards our ears. This compresses our neck and puts a lot of strain on the small muscles that are already working overtime by looking downwards. A desk setup that is too high (with your arms sitting outstretched) or too low (forcing a bent forward posture) can also contribute to this problem.
Mindfulness break: Relax your shoulders down away from your ears and let your shoulder blades sink back down towards your spine in your lower back. It may help to imagine lengthening your neck by lifting your head upwards while letting your shoulders and arms sink down. Notice any soreness or tension built up where the shoulders meet the neck.
5. Strained Back
All of these poor posture habits, like looking downward or sitting forward, can lead to a strained back. It is very common for people with desk jobs, especially in the tech industry, to wind up with upper or lower back issues depending on the way they sit. These issues can be compounded by your environment, such as an uncomfortable chair, working too often in environments not optimized for long-term work (like a coffee shop table, airplane seat, or curled up on the couch) and extended periods of inactivity that result from long work days.
Mindfulness break: Sit in a chair where your thighs are parallel with the ground and your feet can be placed flat on the floor.With your hands relaxed in your lap, focus on returning your spine to a neutral posture by imagining stacking each vertebra on top of each other so they are back in alignment, which should be a natural curve. Your shoulders and neck should also be relaxed as noted above. Notice any places in your upper and lower back where you are carrying tension or soreness.
6. Stiff Hands
Trackpads, mice, swiping, clicking, and typing are all repetitive tasks that lead to stress injuries of the hands and wrists, sometimes traveling all the way through the forearms. Plus, using a keyboard and mouse that are not ergonomic can keep your hands engaged in a stressful position for several hours, which can add to the problem.
Mindfulness break: Allow your hands to rest lightly at your sides or in your lap in a neutral position, with fingers relaxed (neither clenched nor fully extended). Notice any places in your fingers, wrists, or forearms where you are carrying tension or soreness.
If you find yourself with recurring stress and soreness in certain parts of your body, there are several stretches that can help to relieve the symptoms. I’ve listed a few links to resources below. And of course, if pain is interfering with your work or causing you a great deal of discomfort, I would recommend seeing a medical professional, a chiropractor, massage therapist, or specialist as soon as time or money will allow.
Resources for stretching to ease tension:
- https://ehs.ucsc.edu/programs/ergo/stretch.html Desk Stretches
- https://aaptiv.com/magazine/ease-neck-tension Full Body
- https://daily-ritual.com/yoga-blog/2016/11/22/releasing-tension-from-the-face-and-neck Face & Neck
- https://www.charlottewattshealth.com/de-stress/exercises-free-neck-shoulder-jaw-head-tension/ Neck, Shoulder & Jaw
- https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-pain/wrist-and-hand-stretches Wrist & Hands