Shiver, shake, tighten up. Hunching one’s shoulders in the cold is so instinctive. Even when wrapped in polar fleece and down it seems to be the most natural thing to do against a cold wind or stinging cold. It’s also a reflexive response to cold, a literal drawing inward to keep you warm and protect yourself.
A client once told me that she used to regularly visit a chiropractor for treatment when she was in college. She would always get shoulder and neck pain during cold weather; it was a mystery to her until she realized that she would repeatedly hunch her shoulders in an attempt to stay warm – even though this action didn’t even succeed in doing so!
I appreciated this story because recently I saw a client with the same complaint: when the weather gets cold, her shoulders hurt all the time – she’s constantly “tightening up” against the cold.
The hunching of the shoulders and rounding inward as if we were turtles pulling our heads into our shells – is the posture of the Red Light Reflex – a reflex evoked by fear, anxiety, worry, and the need to protect ourselves. It’s as psychological as it is physiological. This reflexive pattern can result in neck and shoulder pain, as well as shallow breathing and stooped, slumped posture. Like all reflexes, it’s universal, it’s in our brains, and we’ll never get rid of it; it’s just something we need to be in control of so that it is not in control of us.
As I learned on my trek in the Himalayas one of the best measures you can take against the cold – is to dress in layers and wear a scarf. Yes, I know I sound like your mother, but if you know it’s going to be cold, layers and warm clothing (especially a scarf) will work best to allow you to stand up straight and walk with your arms swinging and your head naturally balanced on top of your neck rather than drawn in like a turtle. This will create more heat in your body and allow for better overall circulation as well.
When you get home from your winter walk, do a short routine of Somatic Exercises to shake off any tension:
These are excellent movement that address not only the Red Light Reflex but the
tension that builds up in the center of the body when we brace ourselves against the cold. You can gently pandiculate the muscles of the neck and shoulders as well – contracting into the muscles in that protective “hunch” as you see me doing in the photo on the right – and slowly releasing out of it back to neutral. If you make the movement like a yawn you’ll find the tension in your neck and shoulders is reduced the more repetitions you do.
Don’t let the winter keep you indoors! It’s been said before that movement is medicine; it’s the best way to build a strong, intelligent body that can withstand the stress of computers, cars and cold winters. There are many things to do outdoors in the cold of winter. Be creative, breathe deeply and keep moving. It’s going to be a long winter!