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.

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.

Correct Your Common Posture Problems in 3 Steps

Today, I read a New York Times article about how posture affects one’s emotional state, physical health, and self-esteem. The solution that is offered is simply to do strengthening exercises for the back, core, and buttocks. In reality, the answer is not that simple (if it were, back pain and bad posture would be non-existent). What this article fails to address is the root cause of most poor posture. Hanna Somatics provides this missing link information.

I recently wrote this blog post about posture and how Hanna Somatics teaches you to improve your posture – or better said, “efficient balance in the center,”  and relieve your back pain for the long-term.

Step 1: Be aware of your habits

The first thing you need to do is to become aware of your current postural, movement, and emotional habits. Do you use a computer, hold a bag or purse on one shoulder or sit for hours at a time? Are you frequently stressed or fearful? Just take note.

Step 2: Learn how your habits create Sensory Motor Amnesia

Your brain controls your muscles, movement, emotional responses, and the way you habituate to the stresses of your life. Sensory Motor Amnesia presents as full-body patterns of muscular tightness. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit –  your brain’s new “normal” – and you lose conscious awareness. This is when slumped posture and back pain arise. This also affects your emotional and psychological state, and self-esteem.

Step 3: Find your optimum posture

This doesn’t mean simply standing straight or sitting with your feet planted on the floor. You need to restore your ability to sense and fully control your muscles to contract and relax by first retraining your brain – the control center of your body – through pandiculation and Hanna Somatic Exercises. This is a process of education, the same as learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano. You will learn body and emotional awareness, and learn to release tense muscles, which will help you to create physical comfort from the inside out.

4 Common “Bad” Postures (and their causes):

  • 32Hunched shoulders and tucked pelvis – slumping in seat, frequent computer use, emotional response to worry and fear
  • Text neck“/Forward neck – tilting head downward to use handheld device or nurse/feed an infant, straining to see computer screen
  • Uneven weight on feet – compensation due to an accident, injury or surgery, holding baby on one hip, one-sided repetitive tasks
  • IMG_1402Forward hip tilt/Arched lower back – common in Type A personalities and active individuals, emotional response to high-stress situations

Try a few Somatic Exercises to help release tight back muscles and improve posture.

6 Somatics Exercises for Pregnancy

Here is a brief “Somatics Journal” from one of my clinical Somatics students who just had her third baby. It is her experience of doing Hanna Somatic Exercises before, during and after her pregnancy and integrating the awareness she gained from it. Enjoy!

I wanted to share my Somatics experience during the delivery of my daughter and during the last few weeks, back at home, exploring ways to avoid unnecessary pains and discomfort in my body.

It is amazing how awareness and connectedness to your body can make the childbirth experience so different.

It wasn’t easier or less painful for me, yet in the moment of truth, when I had to help my baby and push her out, I could actually imagine and picture the muscles in my body. I could see which muscles should work when I needed to push and which muscles should stay relaxed, long and open, in a way that would help me work in the most efficient way. In every contraction I actually did Arch and Curl. Then I completely relaxed my muscles in between the contractions. I felt in control of my body and the entire process. This was much different experience from my other two deliveries. I was part of it, I helped it, I had control!

Back home, there was lots of physical and repetitive stress:

Holding my baby for hours, breastfeeding her in an uncomfortable position that didn’t feel good in my body. Holding her in one arm and playing with my other two kids, using the rest of my body, trying to find balance and ease. Challenging!

Thankfully, at the end of the day (well, there isn’t really end of the day when you have a baby) when the other kids were asleep, I had my “Hanna Somatics cat stretch” – I had my awareness – just me taking care of my body and reminding it that it could be different. Pandiculating, feeling my muscles, isolating the areas needed to be taken care of, enjoying the movement, allowing my body to flow in such a natural, relaxing way.

It takes me about 15 minutes a day to awaken my muscles, to activate my joints, to find again the way to move freely and remind my brain and my nervous system how my body, my muscles can and should work. Three weeks after having my baby, I was laying on my yoga mat and what I felt was discomfort in my back – a huge arch in my lower back. Both my shoulders were rounded forward and it felt like someone was  pulling them up to my ears and I could not control it. I was looking for that feeling of “melting” into the mat, and just couldn’t feel it.

An easy daily movement routine to regain control of your body:

Arch & Flatten – I start to feel more in control, my movement becomes more fluid, smooth. I feel a wavy movement in my entire spine and can actually feel it and imagine it moving from bottom to top. My neck joins the movement and then the head and chin move as well. My entire body is in that movement and I already have much more control than I had when I started.

The Flower – this is where the front of my body really opens, and the shoulders release down. It BiaELA7BTfeels great because it releases my upper back. I still don’t feel comfortable laying on my belly and doing the Back Lift, so I just do a variation of it while lying on my back. After doing it, I can sense the connection between my upper body and my lower body.

Arch & CurlI love this one! When releasing the front of the body, on the way down back to the mat, I release so slowly that I feel each vertebra, one by one, as it touches the mat. My elbows open to the sides and I go all the way down until my shoulders and elbows touch the mat. It is a complete release of my upper body when I do it slowly and control each muscle that is part of that movement.

Side Bend  – After holding my baby for only four weeks now, I know I still need to restore balance between the right and left sides of my body. This is the best exercise to restore balance. I do it first with my hand on my hip, just to feel where the movement is and which muscles are working. When doing it with my arm holding my head, I feel the entire side of my body lengthen and open all the way to my armpit.

Steeple Twist I love connection I feel when I do the Steeple Twist the upper and lower body and sides of my body – when everything moves from the center. I’m like a well-oiled machine.

I do my Somatic Exercises every day. Sometimes I add my own movement variations and allow my body to choose the way it wants to move, in the most natural way. At the end of each practice, I stand up and feel taller, softer; I feel good in my own body, I feel that I have control again.

I thank Hanna Somatics, as well as my Nia movement practice for this. I feel lucky that I’m able to choose awareness and movement as a way of life.

 

The Best Somatic Exercise for Low Back Pain and Neck Pain

A stiff neck is a stiff body.

I’ve written about neck pain before, and how it is never solely a problem of the neck muscles. The brain and nervous system control our bodies as a system. While it may feel as if there is one muscle – or area of the body – causing the pain, that is rarely ever the case. So it is with “neck pain” and “back pain.”

Both neck pain and low back pain are the result of tight muscles in the center of the body. “The neck” is only the top portion of the spine and it moves in conjunction with the rest of the body – the muscles on the top of the shoulders (levator scalpulae, scalenes, and upper trapezius) as well as the strong and deep muscles of the back.

In a case of whiplash from, for example, a car accident, the muscles of the back of the body, which insert from the pelvis up into the occiput of the skull, reflexively and violently contract. This can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia, in which the muscles remain “frozen,” unable to release fully. These frozen muscles can contribute to migraines, TMJ, tension headaches, shoulder pain and back pain. Because nothing in the body moves or functions in isolation it’s important to release the full pattern of tight muscles in order to reverse your muscle pain and restore full muscle function.

Try this gentle, easy Somatic Exercise for neck pain and back pain relief:

This movement – the Back Lift – is effective for anyone suffering from neck problems – or for office workers, technical people, engineers, teachers who stand all day or anyone who sits, stands, walks, runs or drives:

Lie on your stomach, head turned to one side. The palm is on the floor with the elbow directly in line with the shoulder.  Place your opposite cheek and the fingertips of the hand together. Make sure you’re comfortable, with enough room for your shoulder to relax.

Slowly lift just the elbow several inches off the floor. Notice the contraction in the upper, middle and lower parts of the shoulder. Repeat 3 times, lowering the elbow slowly. Notice the quality of movement. Is it bumpy? Shaky? If so, slow down and smooth it out.

Slowly lift your head and notice how far down the left side of your back you can you feel the contraction. This is what a baby does at 5 months; it’s a deliberate contraction of the back of the body in order to begin the eventual process of crawling, then walking. It’s called the “Landau Response.” Repeat two times slowly. Completely relax.

Keeping the hand and the cheek together, inhale and float the elbow, cheek, head and hand up several inches. The right arm relaxes on the floor. Notice the strong contraction down the left side of your back. This movement comes from the back of the body, not just from the top of the shoulder. Your neck muscles shouldn’t be doing all the work! Did you notice something happening on the right side of your body? Your right leg wants to lift! This is an involuntary contraction. Repeat slowly two times. Completely relax between each repetition.

Lift the opposite leg slowly. Notice how the upper body contracts slightly to help counterbalance the upper body. This is what we do when we walk. Repeat two times, completely relaxing between each repetition.

Now let’s put it all together: slowly lift elbow, cheek, head, hand and the opposite leg – as if you want to look over the left shoulder. Only come up as far as is comfortable. It’s the back that is working to lift you. Now slowly come back down. The slow lengthening is when your brain has the most potential to change what the muscles are doing. During this phase the brain can restore the full length of the muscle. Completely  relax and melt into the floor.

Repeat this 3-4 times slowly, lifting only as far as is comfortable. Notice how the front of your body lengthens to allow you to contract the back of the body! The neck is coordinating along with the back and shoulders in an efficient, easy and natural movement.  The only goal of this movement is to teach your brain to restore awareness and motor control of your back muscles – so you can tighten them when you need them, and relax them when they’re no longer needed for action.

IMPORTANT: After doing this Somatic Exercise, follow with Arch and Flatten. Then take a minute to relax completely. Let your brain soak up the sensory feedback. You are changing your nervous system by doing this movement; this is how your brain begins to make changes in your muscles.

For more helpful Somatic Exercises, visit the Essential Somatics® store to check out our instructional DVDs.

Activation Exercises For Improved Athletic Performance – Part 1 – Strength Training

A lot of athletes have asked me for a daily routine of Somatic Exercises to serve as “activation exercises.” Activation exercises are a short series of exercises that will prepare you to move well.

Hanna Somatic Exercises are activation exercises as well as “deactivation exercises.”

A large component of strength is full muscle control. Traditional athletic training teaches us how to “activate” (or contract) our muscles. But there is very little emphasis on learning to “deactivate” (or relax) our muscles back to their original and optimum resting length. Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to pandiculate, which allows you to fully contract, and then de-contract your muscles for more potential for strength. Pandiculation is the safer, more effective alternative to stretching.

A word before you begin:

These movements are movement patterns – not “exercises” as such. No stretching is required – just slow, yawn-like pandiculations. Please do not “do” these movements; “create” these movements through use of the breath, as you move slowly, with conscious attention to the quality of the movement. You can’t sense quality if you’re moving quickly! And your ability to do ballistic movement depends on your control and quality of movement. If you want to go fast, first go slow so you know what you’re doing.

The point of Somatic Exercises is to to eliminate accumulated muscle tension before you begin training and then reduce any accumulated muscle tension after your training. Accumulated tension occurs due to over-training, injuries, accidents, poor postural habits and the stresses of daily life.  Address the muscular system at the level of the brain and nervous system, and you quickly restore full muscle length and function and relearn optimal movement patterns.

Here are a few Somatic Exercises that will ready your entire body in the same way a cat or dog readies itself for action every time it gets up off the floor. We have all seen cats and dogs pandiculate when they get up from rest. They do that reflexively. If they didn’t pandiculate, they would lose the ability to move as swiftly and adeptly as they do.

As you move through these Somatic Exercises treat them as the preparation for movement that they are; there’s no need to go quickly, there’s no need to tick repetitions off your mental clipboard. Treat them like the lengthening yawn that they are. Put your focus on the patterns that you’re moving through. Stop for just a few seconds between repetitions as well as each individual movement pattern in order to allow your brain to absorb the sensory feedback you are sending it. This momentary pause will integrate new proprioceptive awareness once you stand up again and begin working out.

Please note: It is assumed that the reader has a basic understanding of Somatic Movements. The best way to use Somatic Exercises to support your workout is to learn as much as you can. Consider having a longer morning routine in which you pandiculate the extensors, flexors and trunk rotators. Then, when you get to the gym, three short, slow Somatic Exercises will suffice to sufficiently “reboot” your somatic awareness and muscle control for full recruitment of the muscles needed for your workout and full relaxation when you’re finished.

The exercises you will see in this video are:

  • Arch and Flatten
  • Back Lift
  • X Lateral Arch and Curl

Thanks to Colm McDonnell of ClinicalSomatics.ie for his collaboration on this post.

How To Reverse Iliotibial Band Pain: Addressing the Trauma Reflex

I’ve written about Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) before. In my previous iliotibial band pain post I explain what it is as well as how this condition is yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. Here is an email I just sent to a woman who has my DVDs, has a personal Somatics practice, yet is stumped by her IT band pain:

Many people ask me if I have Somatics DVDs for specific body parts that are causing them pain. I tell everyone the same thing – which will be the focus of my upcoming book:

It is never just one muscle causing the pain or problems in your body. It is always a pattern. The brain organizes you as a system in which patterns are primary. Address the dysfunctional muscular pattern and that body part will cease to be painful. In the case of iliotibial band pain, it is the Trauma Reflex.

An habituated Trauma Reflex causes iliotibial band pain.

Pain in your iliotibial band develops because your brain and muscles have habituated to human-body-muscle-diagramthe Trauma Reflex. One side of your leg (the IT band) is working harder than the other side. You may have already seen my iliotibial band release on my YouTube channel. You’ll notice that it’s a variation of the Side Bend – the most important and powerful movement one can do to regain control and awareness of the waist muscles.

When the waist muscles are tighter on one side than the other, those muscles “hitch” the pelvis up slightly on one side. What happens then? Your brain, the great compensator and integrator of all sensory and motor feedback in your life, teaches your legs to work differently, one side to the other. This happens, in most cases, completely under your conscious awareness.

If you have bilateral IT band pain, you may be stuck in the Startle Reflex (red light reflex). The Startle (red light) Reflex, a full body pattern, causes your knees to bend slightly  which makes it impossible for your pelvis and legs to swing freely.

Look at the full body pattern, learn to reverse that and your iliotibial band pain will go away. Use the mirror: what do you look like side to side? Are you uneven? Do you walk in an uneven gait? Do you put more weight on leg than the other? Consider what you do during the day that may cause that to happen.

Go back to the basic Somatic Exercises on your DVDs and start from the beginning. Look for balance, symmetry, quality of movement, and the ability to move the same on one side of your body and the other. Be mindful of patterns, especially when you get to the Side Bend, Washrag, Steeple Twist and Walking Exercises. Take your time! As you get to the walking exercises you have a great opportunity to even out the pelvis and the movement of the legs. And remember that nothing you do in your practice makes any difference if you don’t take that awareness and apply it to the way you move throughout your day – walking, sitting, holding a bag on your shoulder, working out, driving…

This is sensible information that needs repeating again and again and again. This woman is not alone in her frustration. After all, most people are not taught sensible information by our doctors, our physical therapists, our fitness trainers.  We aren’t taught that our brains are the source of the problem and that we are the only ones who can re-educate the way our brains and muscles communicate. We are taught to see ourselves as separately moving parts, like a car or bicycle, when in fact we are a beautifully balanced, synergistic process that can only be experience from within.

Once you can walk smoothly and evenly, squat right down through the center (use a mirror!), hitch your hips up side to side smoothly and evenly, you know your iliotibial band pain will be gone for good!