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.

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:

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.

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.

Functional Fitness and Core Strengthing for a Purpose

We can all agree that it is important to be strong. We live in an era in which technology and machinery have replaced tasks that once required muscle, time and physical effort; we have washing machines, lawn mowers, tractors, cars, elevators, and chainsaws. We don’t challenge our bones and muscles with functional, weight-bearing tasks during our daily life as often as we once did (this includes squatting down to use the toilet!).

Manual laborers, fitness instructors, and professional athletes, among other occupations, are required to have a certain level of physical strength and movement. Unfortunately, many of these individuals often have extremely strong and overly-contracted muscles. Because their muscles cannot release and relax they are likely to experience muscle pain caused by sensory motor amnesia; they need to learn to relax their muscles before strengthening them any further. (In this Strong Core blog post I discuss what “the core” is and how excessive strengthening of the core can contribute to Sensory Motor Amnesia and muscle pain, thus inhibiting free and efficient movement.)

For many people, however, active movement isn’t a required part of one’s profession. You have a choice to either incorporate strength training and movement into your daily life, or not (and your decision will leave you with respective consequences). Motivation to move can be a big hurdle to overcome if you’re not being paid to do it at work every day! The key is to make movement and strength training fun and purposeful.

Ask yourself: what do you want to be strong for? What is your motivation?

Do you want to be able to run a marathon? Climb a mountain? Bring your blood pressure down? Play with your children? Perhaps you want to just “be in shape.” Think about what is important to you and what you want to accomplish. As Dan John, strength and conditioning coach, and author of Never Let Go, says,

“If it is important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.”

Do every day what you want to be able to do in the future. Work toward your strengthening goals by incorporating functional and enjoyable movement into your routine. If you want to be able to climb a mountain, ditch the treadmill and walk a mile through your neighborhood or in a local park to get you started. If you want to play on the ground with your children, practice getting up and down off the floor. Every. Day.

Most of my personal fitness goals focus on the long-term. My biggest goal is to be able to walk up and down the stairs briskly (unaided) as my 87-year-old mother still does, so I make a point to walk an incline (stairs, a hill, etc.) every day. I want to be able to squat to the ground, carry my own luggage or groceries, and play “tag” with my grandchildren in the playground. Some of my favorite strengthening and movement practices that help me to work towards my goals are: Exuberant AnimalNia, and hiking. These movements will keep me strong and strengthen my brain in the process.

Martha’s Tips for Motivating Your Movement:

  1. Find your “purpose for moving.” What is important to you?
  2. Do your Somatic exercises before and after your chosen strengthening routine. Your muscles need to “reboot” in order to be fully functional.
  3. Enjoy your new routine and keep moving! This takes strength. It also takes a belief that it’s possible.
Now get up and move!

A Strong Core is a Core the Brain Can Control

I recently received this email from a woman who purchased Move Without Pain and my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD:

We are often told (by doctors, exercise experts in the media) that it is good to strengthen our “core muscles” – and often Pilates or Yoga is recommended for that purpose. We’re also told that soft muscles and ligaments make us vulnerable to low back pain. Do Hanna Somatic exercises help strengthen our core, such that we don’t necessarily have to add another type of strengthening exercise routine to our already busy lives?

“Core strengthening” is often considered a panacea for low back pain, and a lack of “core strength” is often blamed for low back pain! Neither one is accurate. In reality, most people with back pain, limited movement and poor posture are suffering from Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The muscles of the core respond involuntarily to stress reflexes by twisting or rotating  to avoid pain or injury (Trauma Reflex), slumping and drawing inward (Red Light/Startle Reflex) and contracting the back (Green Light/Landau Response) to move forward. If you continuously repeat these actions, the muscles of the core learn to stay tight, short and overly contracted. Strengthening muscles that have habituated to stress reflexes is a recipe for more pain. It simply doesn’t work and can sometimes cause harm.

What is “the core” anyway?

“The core” of the body comprises the front, sides d5c71e70ed10d57c667d879908bb48ccand back of the body, from the skull to the pelvic floor and out to the hips. It is not just those abdominal muscles that we are told to suck in and draw up in order to support the back. The core includes the deep muscles of the back that flex and extend our spine and the muscles of the waist (which strap our ribcage to our pelvis) that allow us to laterally flex as well as twist. It is like a girdle of muscles that strap the upper and lower halves of the body to each other.

Repeatedly contracting your abdominals (as one does with sit-ups) creates excessive muscle tension that can prevent fluid, efficient and pain-free movement. Overly contracted abdominal muscles contribute to back pain, neck pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. When the muscles of the back, waist and abdominals are supple, relaxed, and fully under the brain’s control, movement is easy and efficient. The trouble is, most people can tighten their core but cannot fully relax it. This poses a problem when it comes to strengthening for long term health and fitness.

Hanna Somatics helps strengthen the core and relieve low back pain by restoring full brain control of the muscles.

Hanna Somatic exercises do not intentionally teach you to strengthen the muscles of the posture pillow excore. They teach you to regain voluntary control over those muscles of your core which are, for most people, in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia. They restore full muscle length at the brain level through slow, aware movement, and pandiculation so you can regain balance and have a supple core whose long muscles can flex, extend, side bend, and rotate voluntarily. Hanna Somatics doesn’t take the place of the movement you love to do; it prepares you to do what like, only better.  Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to find your own comfortable, neutral posture for support of your spine as you learn to sense and control your muscles from the inside out.

Is it important to strengthen the core?

Yes, it’s important to be strong and it doesn’t have to be a burden – one more thing you feel obligated to do in your busy life. It all depends on how you do it and what you choose to do.

We all need to be strong. Being strong stresses our skeleton in a good way, and can prevent osteoporosis as it aids in bone density. Strong muscles that the brain can control support and stabilize you in any given task so that you can maintain your physical independence as you age. Somatic Exercises improve your sensory motor awareness so you can self-monitor and self-correct your movement and posture in response to the stresses of life.

In another post I will discuss some ideas for functional daily strengthening that will be less of a burden and can be integrated into your life.