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.

6 thoughts on “How Your Response to Stress Causes You Pain

  1. I love your periodic updates, Martha, and this one in particular because it provides an emotional road-map overlay for the physical benefits of Hanna Somatics. Every yoga class I teach contains elements of somatic exercises so, along with learning how to build strength and how to release the muscles, the sense of awareness develops and grows. One step at a time, one moment at a time, we move closer toward living mindfully, to being able to pause, notice, reflect, reach into our toolbox and choose a way of responding to a stressful situation so that it doesn’t take up residence and create chronic pain and limited mobility. Keep up the great work in bringing Somatics to everyone!

    • Hi Dolores,
      You say this so well. Life is one step at a time, as is growth and awareness. Hanna Somatics has so much to offer us in terms of creating freedom and understanding life and ourselves as the on-going process that it is.

      Keep up all the good teaching! And thanks for your kind words of support.

  2. Hi Martha, why haven’t I thought of that before? I play golf usually at least twice a week and have wondered what I could do about being somewhat stiff and aching after a game. Is there a particular set of your movements that you recommend as a good “after golf wind down”? I have the “Pain Relief Through Movement” & “Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joint” DVDs, Regards, Alan Millard

    • Hi Alan,
      Oh yes, this information is one of the most challenging to implement and be aware of. Being somatically aware of everything you do is the whole point!
      All the movements are important; it just depends on what YOUR dominant pattern is. If you’re red light, you need to do the flower and the back lift, and add some gentle twisting (washrag) and movement of the pelvis (walking exercises). If you’ve got a trauma reflex, you need to add the side bend to even out your wait and the ability for your brain to coordinate both sides of the waist. Only you know what your patterns are.
      A good general routine is arch and flatten, back lift, cross lateral arch and curl, washrag (or steeple twist).

      I hope that helps!

  3. I am re-reading this post today because I thought it was an especially important reminder. Enjoyed the article and the comments. Thanks, Martha, and my gratitude to all those who take the time to post their thoughts to these articles.

    • Thanks so much, Bonnie. For many people it takes a while to accept the connection between “who” we are, “what” we do and “how” we think – and how our bodies show up in our lives. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you so much for following the blog!

      Be well,

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