How Your Response to Stress Causes You Pain

The Three Somatic Reflexes

We know why muscle pain occurs and how to release it, but how much do you know about the Three Somatic ReflexesFamiliarizing yourself with these reflexes and how they cause Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is an integral part of understanding your own muscle pain. It isn’t enough to know that the pain in your hip is from SMA; you need to know how your responses to stress causes your SMA to begin with.

There are some 44 reflexes in the human body, yet the Red Light, Green Light, and Trauma reflexes, as outlined by Thomas Hanna in his book, Somatics, are predictable when it comes to habituating to chronic stress. When you can recognize your specific “stuck” reflexive patterns that occur when you are stressed, you will become more skilled at understanding why you have pain, how it’s connected to a stress reflex (or a combination thereof), and how to release it in order to self-regulate and create homeostasis and balance within your own body.

How do you respond to stress?

Familiarizing yourself with the Three Somatic Reflexes will better equip you to nip your SMA in the bud and help you to self-correct. Your awareness of how you personally respond to stress mentally, physically, and emotionally will allow you to recognize when you are falling into a stress reflex pattern and how it is affecting your posture, pain, and psychological state.

  1. The Green Light Reflex (Landau Response) is the reflex of forward movement which involves the muscles of the back. The back is typically arched and the shoulders are drawn back. Do you tend to rush around? Are you “always on”? Are you very active?
  2. The Red Light Reflex (Startle Response) involves the muscles of the front. The shoulders are rounded, back is slumped, and chin jutted forward. Do you often feel anxious? Do you spend long hours at a desk or computer? Do you struggle to breathe deeply?
  3. The Trauma Reflex involves the muscles of the trunk rotators and occurs involuntarily in response to accidents and injuries. Do you have a hip hike? Have you had an accident, injury, or surgery? Do you routinely engage in one-sided movement (golfing, holding children on your hip, etc.)

More than just a physical experience…

Understanding each individual reflex and applying your knowledge to your daily life will help you understand yourself better as a person. The Green Light and Red Light reflexes are deeply emotional.

  • The Green Light Reflex can become habituated when we never allow ourselves to stop, rest, relax and let go. We’re always “on” and concerned with not losing control.
  • The Red Light Reflex is well-known in psychology and trauma work. It is a deeply primal, and protective posture, both emotionally and physically.

These reflexes are life-saving and life-giving, and are there for us to respond to, yet we are not supposed to live in them! 

4 Ways to Understand Yourself and Take Back Control

  1. Take a minute to simply BE. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Tune in and feel how it is to be you in this moment. How are you feeling physically and emotionally? What is making you feel this way and how are you responding to this stimuli? Use this time to slow down, calm your mind, and listen to your body.
  2. Recognize your reflexive habits. Use your knowledge of the Somatic Reflexes to understand how these habits contribute to your specific muscle pain. This will help you choose Somatic Exercises that help you regain and retain balance and a sense of neutral.
  3. Be aware in the moment. If you notice yourself slumping, was it because of your response to the outrageous electric bill you just opened? If your right shoulder is hurting, is it because you’ve been carrying that heavy bag on one shoulder for a bit too long? Did your whole back tightened in response to a phone call? Notice when and how you respond, correct as you go, and…
  4. Do your Somatic Exercises every day. If you’ve been sitting at your desk for 2 hours straight, utilize the Somatic Exercises from the Pain-Free at Work DVD to reset your muscles and brain to neutral. If you’ve been golfing all day, wind down with Somatic Exercises so that you don’t fall into a Trauma Reflex. Standing for long hours at work can take a toll on your lower back (and create a domino effect throughout your body), so release the day’s built-up SMA with Somatic Exercises. If you have done steps 1-3, step 4 is intended for you to use your awareness to customize your daily Somatic Exercise routine to how you felt and what you experienced today.

Without awareness of how you respond to stress mentally, physically, and emotionally, you will undo your progress in no time at all.

The latest research on neuroplasticity is clear: in order to keep our brains healthy we need differentiation and challenges. Understanding how stress affects you personally and your movement habits and physical pain and movement in particular comes from the brain. It’s use it or lose it.  The less habituated to stress you are, the more you can keep your brain in a constant state of learning and regeneration.

Somatics Takeaway for August


I have just returned from a three-week trip to Australia. After experiencing the rainy, chilly winter there, it’s great to return to the long, lazy days of summer. It’s traditional vacation time and to me vacation has always been one of activity: mountain climbing and swimming. This year the next three weeks will involve a different kind of vacation for me. My daily life is one of travel and movement and different time zones.

So this year August will be a month of no travel, plenty of rest, walking, and doing something most of us don’t give enough attention to: integrating.

Integration is like digestion; it allows the brain to process and absorb the feedback of your everyday movements (or your Somatics practice). At the end of your day, allow yourself to come to a full stop, let everything go, and allow your brain to absorb all the sensory feedback from your day. Do the same in your Somatics practice. Without this information, you are unable to hone the awareness needed to determine if your actions are benefitting or detracting from your overall health, movement skill, emotional well-being, and goals.

For those of you who say, “I just can’t relax,” remember to stop and rest after your somatic movement, or at the end of your day; this is a practice in learning to relax. It truly is an art these days. When you let go completely, your brain and nervous system begin to know what true relaxation is. (And what a wealth of information it brings to your awareness!)

So, remember to pause after each movement (or each day) in order to let your brain and body truly release and reset.

Rushing from one thing to the next leads to burnout and prevents us from sensing our bodies, how we relate to them and how our actions affects them. We don’t want to be surprised by a body that seems to suddenly work against us. We all need time to integrate. Take the time; it’s worth the rest of your life.


The Fastest Route to a Pain-free Body: Clinical Hanna Somatics sessions

Janet (not her real name) came to my office this week complaining of hip pain. Walking upstairs was painful and laborious – and she was only in her 30’s.  She had, as she put it, “a list a mile long of things I’ve tried” in her search for long term pain relief.  “I’m told I have piriformis syndrome. If I could just get my right buttock to relax, I think I could finally begin to feel better,” she said.

In a Clinical Somatics session that focused on the Trauma Reflex, Janet learned – very quickly – to release her tight waist muscles, ribcage and trunk rotators.I taught her to release the entire pattern of contraction that was causing her buttock to spasm: her tight buttock, abdominals and abductor muscles. Working with sensory feedback from my hand, she contracted these muscles as a pattern, then slowly released them into a fuller, more relaxed length. This technique is called assisted pandiculation – it resets the muscle control, function and length at the level of the central nervous system.  Twice more she pandiculated those same muscles, until she reached her own comfortable limit, flopping her leg inward easily.  She also learned the Back Lift to begin to relax her tightly contracted back muscles.

What happened next took me by surprise:

She began to yell, “Oh my God, oh my God! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!”

“Are you alright? Does anything hurt?” I asked. She’d scared me!

“No, no, no, it’s just that I finally relaxed my buttock! I’ve been saying this all along and nobody believed me! This is my eureka moment!

Janet left the office with an ability to move her hips in a way she hadn’t been able to for eight years.

Most muscle pain problems are functional in nature, not structural

Why did this clinical Somatics session help her when years of physical therapy, trigger point therapy, massage, acupuncture and medical treatments hadn’t? Because Janet’s problem wasn’t structural; it was functional. She suffered from Sensory Motor Amnesia, the habituated compensatory response to two traumatic accidents. Her muscles had learned to adapt, resulting in a twisted pelvis, altered gait and tight hip joint.  As Janet learned to release the entire pattern of tightness on her right side (and compensatory tightness on her other side) and improve the function of her muscles, her hip pain abated, and her muscle coordination and balance improved.

Janet wasn’t completely out of pain. She has more to learn and practice in order to change her old way of holding her body to a new, more free sense of movement. Her brain’s “new normal” will take time to integrate. In addition to a few more clinical sessions I told her to attend every Hanna Somatic Movement class and workshop she possibly could.  Being free and in control of your movement involves life-long learning. I give this same advice to every client I work with. While private clinical sessions are profoundly and rapidly effective, attending only a few sessions is like taking a few piano lessons and expecting to perform like Chopin or Mozart!

People often ask, “why do I need to come to class if I’m doing private sessions and feel much better?” The answer is simple: life is dynamic, as is movement. Every day there is the possibility of change and stress. Classes gives you the opportunity to learn more, differentiate your brain and movement, and become more skillful. Learning to override old habits and takes time! The more you sense and feel as you move, the more you can learn. The more you can learn, the more you can master. The more you master an awareness of yourself, from the inside out, the more adaptable and resilient you will be throughout your life. Eventually efficient movement will become your brain’s default mode as you become more self-monitoring, self-correcting, and self-healing. Varying your daily Somatic Movement routine with classes and workshops and fun, functional movement makes your brain smarter and keeps you out of pain.

Click here to find a workshop, class or training near you.

Click here to purchase Martha’s Pain Relief videos.

Hanna Somatics Retreat – Hollyhock


Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island, BC was founded in 1982 as a center for skill-building and life-long learning. They seek to inspire, nourish and support people whose work serves and educates others in bettering the world.

I love the people who come to workshops at Hollyhock – open, curious, positive – the kind of people who make me more optimistic about our society and the world.

– Andrew Weil, MD

The Myth of Aging at Hollyhock | August 24 – 28, 2016

You can register here or call Hollyhock at 1-800-933-6339 x232 to reserve your spot.

We will explore what Thomas Hanna, Ph.D called ““The Myth of Aging.” This is the Image 14commonly held belief that limited movement, disability and decrepitude is the inevitable result of aging. In reality, it is the way in which we unconsciously adapt to the physical, psychological and emotional stresses of our lives – the accidents, injuries, surgeries, traumas, adaptive behaviors – that determines whether we will become “creaky and old” or maintain our physical freedom, self-awareness, and independence. Participants will experience why it is time to turn the page on that perspective.

Through lectures, movement sessions and interactive participation students will learn:

  • The root cause of most chronic muscle pain – Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and how to reverse it IMG_2442
  • How your movement habits and reflexive responses to stress contribute to conditions such as low back pain, neck, shoulder, hip and joint pain, sciatica, and chronic headaches
  • How all humans respond reflexively to stress within three full body reflex patterns
  • How to lengthen muscles and re-set muscle function without painful stretching
  • A simple daily routine of somatic movements that, when practiced regularly, will relieve chronic pain and maintain freedom of movement for the long-term. The result is more fluid, efficient movement, improved breathing, drastic reduction of functional muscle pain, and improved somatic awareness.

Learning [at Hollyhock] is authentic and powerful. The ripple effect far exceeds the physical boundaries of this special place.

What Causes Sacroiliac Joint Pain and How Somatics Can Help

I recently taught Somatic Exercises online to T.G., a woman suffering from sacroiliac pain, commonly referred to as SI joint dysfunction or SI joint instability. When we began our sessions, she stood tilted to one side, clearly stuck in a Trauma Reflex.  She was unaware of the severity of her tilt; she told me that her posture although technically out of balance, felt normal to her. She knew from reading my book, Move Without Pain, that her tilt was an unconscious habit that her brain had set as “normal” because she’d been standing like that for a very long time. She had a few falls, accidents, and a particularly difficult childbirth and labor.

How SI joint pain arises

After working with me and watching me move, do you think the SI joint is the issue? I’m so amazed at the changes taking place in my body after learning Somatic Exercises. The psoas release you taught me made me feel so much more relaxed in my torso.
– T.G., New Mexico
imagesTo answer her question: her Trauma Reflex – not her SI joint itself – was causing her pain. The painful joint was merely a symptom; the underlying cause of her pain was Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the muscles that attach into, and move the pelvis and SI joint: the extensors of the back, the quadratus lumborum, the iliopsoas, the obliques, the rectus abdominis and others. They were all pulling unevenly on her pelvis so that whatever activity she did caused pain in the joint. Her hamstrings were also very tight because she had begun to use her legs differently to compensate for the tilt in her center. Because her muscles were in a state of chronic contraction, her movement was inefficient and painful.

How the 3 Stress Reflexes affect the SI joint

Some symptoms of SI joint dysfunction are:
  • low back pain on both sides
  • a feeling of weakness and instability at the bottom of the spine
  • sciatic pain
  • pain at the waist, towards the center of the back
  • aching in the front of the thigh and down into the groin
One-sided SI joint pain suggests that the muscles that connect the SI joint and the center of the body are pulling unevenly on the joint. An asymmetrical muscular pull often rotates one side of the pelvis. There is an feeling of being “jammed up” in the sacroiliac joint because the Trauma Reflex puts a painful torque on the pelvis, inhibiting it from moving up, down, forward, and back.
Bilateral SI joint pain suggests habituation to the Green Light Reflex, which creates excessive contraction through the muscles along our spine; this puts excess pressure on the SI joint and lumbar spine. If the Red Light Reflex is habituated, the pelvis doesn’t move freely when walking; the iliopsoas is tightly contracted and the joint feels stuck.
These are all cases of Sensory Motor Amnesia and can be eliminated through Somatic Education, pandiculation, and a daily practice of Somatic Exercises.

The key to regaining stability and mobility

When you no longer move with ease, and cannot sense or control the back, front, and sides of your body, you may feel unstable and lose the ability to walk smoothly and move easily. A critically important aspect of reversing SI joint instability and pain is to learn to move the pelvis freely again. It is precisely that lack of freedom in the pelvis that is absent in those with SI joint (as well as hip and pelvic) pain. In order to regain stability and mobility, you must be able to sense, feel, and control yourself fully from within.

My client learned quite a few Somatic Exercises: arch and flatten , arch and curl, back lift, arch and curl with psoas release, cross lateral arch and curl, side bend, washrag, and the walking exercises. Through repetition of these movements she learned to slowly and intelligently reduce muscle tension in the muscles of the back, waist and front of her body so she could extend, flex, side bend and rotate her body with ease and comfort. She pandiculated these muscles and began to reconnect her brain to her muscles, resetting muscle length, function, sensation, and control.

By the time her session concluded, the uneven muscle tension that had pulled her sacroiliac joint out of alignment had greatly diminished. She found a relaxed and accurate “neutral” in the center of her body. Best of all, she had begun to regain a true sense of herself, from the inside out.

How you can eliminate and prevent SI joint pain

Below are some options for learning to prevent and eliminate SI joint pain and instability and learn to move freely again. It is highly recommended that you seek the help of a skilled Clinical (Hanna Somatic Educator) for more precise guidance and rapid improvement:

Move Without Pain Fundamentals Immersion Course: Learn to Live Pain-Free

In my last blog post, Back Pain: It’s Time To Ask Why, I discussed yet another new approach to relieving back pain: mindfulness-based stress reduction which addresses the symptoms of back pain, but, like most other approaches, does not address the cause.

When it comes to back pain, many people find themselves without answers or a long-term solution to help them live life pain-free.

Have you ever found yourself asking: Why does my pain keep coming back? Why do I feel as though I’m falling apart? What am I doing wrong? Why can’t my doctor get rid of my pain? What should I do now?  Is something wrong with me? Is this what aging feels like? If so, Hanna Somatics can help you answer these questions.

The answer to most muscle pain lies in learning about Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and how it develops in the brain and manifests in the body, and learning about pandiculation, the safe and effective alternative to stretching that resets nervous system control of muscles and movement memory. The truth is that most muscle pain is the result of our habituated responses to the myriad stresses of our lives.

How can I learn more so that I can live pain-free?

The Move Without Pain Fundamentals Immersion Course focuses on the core principles of Hanna Somatics: the science, philosophy, techniques, and Somatic Exercises. It is an excellent introduction to this highly effective, yet simple method of neuromuscular movement education and pain relief. In addition, there will be group discussion and plenty of time for questions (and answers!) about Hanna Somatics and how to address your particular muscle pain condition.

The Fundamentals Immersion Course is for anyone and everyone interested in Hanna Somatics – no prior experience or training necessary!

Hanna Somatics is not just for those with chronic muscle pain.

Most people who seek me out have been suffering from years of muscle pain without
finding a long-term solution. Some people come to me with  no recurring muscle pain – they feel pretty good, but want to learn to keep it that way. Hanna Somatics gets to the root of most muscle pain and the gradual stiffness that many people experience as they get older.

Through gentle pandiculations and Somatic Movements, my clients:

  • Achieve awareness of their bodies and their reactions to stress
  • Experience reduced muscle tension and pain
  • Learn how to relieve muscle pain whenever and wherever they want
  • Rediscover their ability to move efficiently and skillfully with the least possible effort
  • Learn that they can continue to improve their mobility, strength and stamina as they get older

These five benefits are something that can improve the quality of life for everyone – not just people in pain. You will learn to restore precision, efficiency, and skill in your movements, through improved proprioception and internal awareness, so you can create a base of control, strength, coordination, and balance. Reducing muscle pain is simply an added benefit.

Who can benefit from Hanna Somatics?

  • Athletes and dancers (young and old, professional and non-competitive)
  • Anyone experiencing chronic, or recurring muscle pain or injury
  • Those who want to exercise or increase their level of physical activity
  • Parents and daycare workers who carry and lift children daily
  • Anyone who sits and works for long hours at a desk or in a car
  • Anyone seeking to restore their motion and muscle control after a surgery
  • Movement teachers, athletic coaches, fitness trainers, doctors, physical therapists
  • Anyone wanting to improve their body awareness
  • Anyone who wants to be able to move freely for the rest of their lives

Come and experience a renewed awareness within your body and learn to transform the way you move for the rest of your life.

Check out our upcoming Fundamentals Immersion Courses:


Back Pain: It’s Time To Ask Why

A mindful approach to back pain

A recent New York Times article discusses a new approach to easing back pain, called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” This method involves “a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga, and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences, whether they involve physical discomfort or emotional pain.”

The article cites a study conducted on mindfulness meditation and behavioral cognitive therapy for back pain, which reports that “many people may find relief with a form of meditation that harnesses the power of the mind to manage pain.”

It is a relief to see an article in a major newspaper that reports a different perspective (a somatic perspective!) on back pain. The somatic perspective is the understanding that we humans are not inanimate objects that can fixed like a broken toy or washing machine, but are self-guiding, self-sensing, self-teaching synergistic systems that are experienced from the inside out and, given the right feedback and stimulation, can improve through retraining of the mind, brain, and body.

Somatic Education pioneers as Elsa Gindler, F.M. Alexander (“the Alexander Technique”), Moshe Feldenkrais, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Thomas Hanna, PhD, have known for decades that by turning our attention inward to the sensations, through movement, of our own bodies, we can affect profound improvement and change our ability to function in an efficient, balanced, coordinated, and controlled manner. We can reverse the adverse effects of stress, relieve our own pain, and improve life through reeducating our brains and our movement.

This paradigm shift was bound to happen because, as the article states,

Sixty-five million Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and many feel they have tried it all: physical therapy, painkillers, shots.

This is something I hear every day when I work with clients: “I’ve tried everything to relieve my pain and only gotten short-term relief. There is something I’m doing – or have done that is causing the pain.” I have written previously about the questionable use of MRIs as a diagnostic tool for back pain, as well as why muscle pain is not a medical problem, but a functional problem in need of reeducation.

The Importance of Asking WHY

And yet there is still something missing from the mindfulness approach to healing back pain: an understanding of why back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip, knee or foot pain) occurs and an interest in finding the answer. The simple question, “why does this happen?” is not being asked. When that question is left out of the equation, comments such as this one from the New York Times article, will be repeated:

It may not be for everybody,” [Dr. Goyal] said, noting that some people with back pain find yoga painful.

Until the day that researchers pick up the books and research of Thomas Hanna and begin learning about Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), brain reflexes, and pandiculation, nature’s “reboot” for the sensory motor cortex, they will always come up short in their quest to help those in pain. SMA is what researchers and practitioners the world over are looking at when they study back (or neck/shoulder/hip) pain – they just don’t know it.

Meditation is a wonderful tool for self-regulation, stress reduction, and pain relief, yet the root cause of muscle pain – the brain, and the way in which it habituates to stress reflexes, and thus organizes and moves our bodies – is where the gold lies. When you lose the ability to sense and move yourself fully, you will find yourself moving with less freedom, more pain, and more frustration. The answer lies within you and your ability to regain your movement. Without addressing the sensory motor system, brain reflexes, and how and why muscles become tight and painful, studies will continue to report that “this approach doesn’t work for everyone.”

And that would be a shame for those 65 million back pain sufferers across the United States.