Can Stress Management be Simple?

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Stress. It’s unavoidable. No matter your circumstances you are going to experience, and have to manage, some degree of stress in your life. But what is stress?

“Stress has many faces, and creeps into our lives from many directions. No matter what causes it, stress puts the body and the mind on edge. It floods the body with stress hormones. The heart pounds. Muscles tense. Breathing quickens. The stomach churns.
The body’s response to stress was honed in our prehistory. Collectively called the “fight-or-flight” response, it has helped humans survive threats like animal attacks, fires, floods, and conflict with other humans. Today, obvious dangers like those aren’t the main things that trigger the stress response. Any situation you perceive as threatening, or which requires you to adjust to a change, can set it off. And that can spell trouble.
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can dampen the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other common infections. It can contribute to asthma, digestive disorders, cancer, and other health problems. New research even supports the notion that high levels of stress somehow speed up the aging process.
Though stress is inevitable, you can help control your body’s response to it. Exercise, meditation, invoking the relaxation response, and mindfulness are great stress busters.”
https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/stressSource

From the above, the point we’re most interested in is this: “Muscles tense.” What they are saying is that stress causes involuntary muscular tension. That’s a problem. This muscle tension happens subconsciously. We are not really aware of it. This muscle tension, as well as making us feel stressed, can lead to chronic muscle pain and stiffness.

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress… https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body

This also leads to automatic activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). The physiological effects of activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (SNS) include:

  • ACCELERATED Heart Beat (anxiety anyone?)
  • HIGH Blood Pressure (uh oh)
  • INHIBITED digestion (hello belly ache)
  • RELAXED Bladder up (I never used to make night time trips to the bathroom?)
  • CONTRACTED Rectum (why am I constipated?)
  • Secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (I can’t shake this bad mood)
  • SUPPRESSION of the immune system (why am I always sick?)
  • REDUCED growth (suppression of growth hormones) (that little cut still hasn’t healed)
  • SLEEP PROBLEMS (so tired all the time)
  • MEMORY DYSFUNCTION (sorry, I totally forgot about your birthday)

Doesn’t sound like much fun does it?

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, you may be suffering from some degree of chronic stress and the chronic SNS activation that goes along with that. SNS mode is not necessarily a negative state, as indicated above it is necessary to respond to a threat/situation appropriately. The problem is when we find ourselves in a state of chronic SNS activation. As humans, we are well-equipped to deal with short periods of SNS activation, then ideally, when the perceived threat has ended, we would return to PARASYMPATHETIC Nervous System (PNS) activation. PNS is, or should be, our default mode (also known as ‘Rest, Digest and Repair’ mode).

PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system activation has the opposite effects to the Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • SLOWER heart beat (feeling calm…)
  • LOWER blood pressure (…and relaxed…)
  • STIMULATION of digestion (…and well nourished)
  • NORMALISED bladder function (no more getting up in the night)
  • RELAXATION of rectum (regular as clockwork)
  • INHIBITS secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (happy mood, happy days)
  • STIMULATION of the immune system (I can’t remember the last time I was sick)
  • NORMALISED growth hormone responses (that cut has healed right up)
  • DEEPER more restful sleep (Zzzzz..)
  • NORMALISATION of memory functions (I planned a surpise for your birthday)

That all sounds much more conducive to feelings of relaxation right?

But how do we switch back to PNS mode, or ‘invoke the relaxation response’ when we are chronically stressed?

Well, if you could somehow release the involuntary muscular tension that is triggered in response to stress you could deliberately switch back to PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system mode. Somatic Movements provide us with a simple and straight forward way to do just that. They use a technique called pandiculation to reduce muscular tension (and reduce pain and improve movement, bonus!). Pandiculation works by re-establishing your voluntary control over your muscles and in the process, relaxing them. This leads to de-activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (fight, flight or freeze mode) and activates the PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system (rest, digest and repair mode).

This makes Somatic Movements a simple and effective stress management tool. By learning how to monitor, regulate and control your own muscle tension you are learning how to monitor, regulate and control how you respond to stress. With practice you can become more resilient to the myriad effects of stress. You can literally learn how to relax, and activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System, any time, on demand. Becoming an expert at relaxing. Sceptical? Take less than 3 minutes and try a pandiculation right now by listening to the audio below;

The pandiculation technique utilised in the audio above can be applied to all the muscle groups in the body for total body relaxation. By deliberately releasing the muscle tension triggered by stress you can return to a state of relaxation and calm. When you are relaxed you can sleep better, when you sleep better you will feel more refreshed, when you are more refreshed, you can think more clearly, when you think more clearly you can make better decisions, when you make better decisions… well, who knows what good things might happen!

When stress is unavoidable, simple, effective stress management techniques become essential. So why not Learn Somatics? You’ve nothing to lose… except all that tension.

If you’re interested in learning how to use Somatics to release muscle tension and manage stress check out my Online Class offerings and 1-1 options here. Alternatively you can visit the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel and start learning today.

As always thanks for reading.

learnsomatics.ie

New Year, New Resolutions, New You?

At this time of year many people start thinking about New Year Resolutions. Often these resolutions will involve getting fit or losing weight. Your success or ability to lose weight and/or get fit will be intrinsically linked to your ability to move well. We get fit by moving and we lose weight by moving. If we cannot move well and without pain our chances of fulfilling these particular goals are slim… pardon the pun!

new-years-resolutions2_dreamstime_m_17232559


So with that said it would make sense to address your ability to move and perhaps make improving your movement one of your new years resolutions. When you can move well and without pain you will be more inclined to continue with your chosen exercise regime/activity. You will also be less likely to pick up an injury that might scupper your progress.

Moving freely and without pain is the foundation stone upon which you can build your new healthier lifestyle for the new year. Somatics is all about improving your movement. A daily somatics practice will lead to;

Pain relief: You are unlikely to keep up a new fitness regime if you have pain. Somatics can resolve your chronic pain issues (read more here)…

Improved movement: Somatics improves your movement by eliminating Sensory Motor Amnesia leading to greatly improved movement (read more here)

Improved posture: When you release and relax you muscles your posture improves automatically (read more here)

Improved balance, coordination and proprioception: When you can contract and relax all your muscles voluntarily you will have better control of your whole body (read more here)

Improved sleep: When your muscles are relaxed it is easier to fall asleep and stay asleep (read more here)

All of these benefits will go a long way towards helping you achieve your fitness or weight loss goals for the new year. If you would like to learn some of the most fundamental Somatic Movements right now you can head over to the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel where I’ll be adding more movements weekly.

Or perhaps you’d like to learn from me directly. No problem, check out my online learning options here. I’d love to help you.

Whatever your goals, have a happy, healthy and active new year!

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Somatic Movement – The Basics and some Resources

In my last post I talked about the difference between stretching and Pandiculation. Based on the number of emails I received in relation to that article I want to clarify how Pandiculation relates to the other main elements of Somatic Education which are;

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

&

The Three Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma)

You can’t fix a problem that you are not aware of. In the context of Somatic Education, Sensory Motor Amnesia is the problem, the Three Reflexes are how the problem presents and pandiculation is (one of) the tools we use to address and resolve the problem.

Everyone has some degree of SMA, from a little to a lot. Read more about what SMA is and how it develops, here.

SMA shows itself in the body as habituated contraction of Three Reflexes. These are brain reflexes, if you are conscious and reading this, then you have a brain, and if you have a brain, you will be susceptible to habituation of these three reflexes. I encourage you to read the three blog entries on each of the reflexes.

Here they are;

Green Light Reflex

Red Light Reflex

Trauma Reflex

When we habituate any or all of the Three Reflexes we will inevitably have movement deficits and/or muscle pain. The extent of either will be dependant on the subtlety or severity of our Sensory Motor Amnesia. Regardless, the approach to resolving the SMA is the same. We must remind the brain how to use the affected musculature correctly. We do this by voluntarily recreating the Three Reflexes and then slowly decreating them.

In the case of Green Light Reflex, this involves  purposely contracting the muscles of the Green Light Reflex, which is all the muscles of the back of the body. This allows us to take voluntary/deliberate/conscious control of those muscles, and then voluntarily/deliberately/consciously relaxing them slowly and under control. This simple act of pandiculating reduces the resting level of tension in the muscles for better movement, reduced pain and improved comfort.

Below is my video demonstrating a simple Somatic Movement to address Green Light Reflex, pandiculating the muscles of the back of the Spine, with an emphasis on the lower back muscles. I would advice watching the video first and then doing the movement whilst listening again.

Here is another simple Somatic Movement that addresses Red Light Reflex. Again watch the video first and then do the movement whilst listening to the video.

As you can see from the videos, Somatic Movements are performed, slowly and gently with the intention of something like a yawn. Try these out and leave a comment on your experience.

You can find more of my free videos on the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel where I will be breaking down all of the most fundamental Somatic Movements.

If you are interested in books on Somatics, I’ve provided a short list below;

Books about Somatics

Somatics by Thomas Hanna

The Body of Life by Thomas Hanna

Move Without Pain by Martha Peterson

Move Like an Animal by Edward Barrera

The Sustainable You by John Loupos

If you think you’d like to Learn Somatics online with me, you can check out my online learning options here.

As always thanks for reading

www.learnsomatics.ie

Hard Body, Soft Bed – Soft Body, Hard Bed

When I first began practicing Somatic Movements for myself a funny thing happened, I kept falling asleep when I would do the Backlift. I would lay down on my belly on the hard carpetted floor to do some Backlifts, I would begin with slow, careful contraction of my back muscles, lifting my head arm and opposite leg, and then slowly relax back to the floor under control…

…and then I would wake up about 20 minutes later in a little puddle of drool, slightly confused but very relaxed. The slow gentle release of tension in the muscles of my back as I pandiculated the Backlift, created a deep sense of relaxation and without even realising it I would drift off.

You see when you pandiculate, your muscles relax, soften and lengthen, reducing the level of tension in your body. And as they do this your whole body becomes more soft and pliable, making the hard floor feel more and more comfortable.

This led me to thinking about how many people sleep on incredibly expensive orthopedic mattresses. The manufacturers promise that it will feel like floating on a cloud, or being weightless. And I’m sure it does, but therein lies the problem. If YOU are hard, tense, stiff and immobile, you have to sleep on a bed that is soft and yielding in order to be comfortable. But, if YOU are soft and yielding in your body, suddenly the hard floor begins to feel just fine and comfortable. YOU begin to accommodate the floor.

Remember for hundreds of thousands of years we didn’t have beds or matresses. So as an experiment of sorts, I began sleeping on the floor. I did this for about a month. I slept on carpetted floor, on top of a yoga mat and a blanket. And whilst I did go back to sleeping in my bed, I slept just as well on the floor as I did in the bed. I will still periodically sleep on the floor, just because it feels good.

floor_sleep

When I teach clients Somatic Movements on the floor, a question I often ask them at the end of their class is “Do you feel like you could go to sleep where you are now on the floor?” And they always, without exception, answer with a kind of surprised, “Yes!”

I am not suggesting you throw out your bed and begin sleeping on the floor, but you could certainly use your comfort level on the floor to give you an idea of how much unneccesary tension you are holding in your body involuntarily (Sensory Motor Amnesia). If laying on the floor is very uncomfortable, you can be sure your body is tighter and more contracted than it needs to be.

If you would like to learn Somatic Movements that will enable you to release and relax your whole body try one of my online classes here or visit Learn Somatics on YouTube. With a daily Somatics practice the floor can be your friend again, just like it was when you were a kid.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

My Glute isn’t firing?

A common complaint among the athletic/training community sounds like this:

My glute won’t fire. That’s why I do more squats, ye know, to activate it…

A yes, the scourge of the glute that won’t fire, but what does that statement actually mean?

What they are really saying is this. They cannot sense or control their glute muscle. That is to say they cannot ‘feel’ it and they cannot contract it under full control nor more importantly, relax it under full control. Thomas Hanna PhD. the man who developed Hanna Somatic Education and author of the book Somatics, called this inability to sense or control a muscle fully; Sensory Motor Amnesia. SMA develops in response to stress (both acute and ongoing), trauma (falls, collisions etc), repetitive actions or through a lack of movement (too much sitting anyone?). When SMA presents in one side of the body such as in one of the glutes, it generally indicates that the person has what he called a Trauma Reflex

Trauma_72ppi

As a quick reminder, a Trauma Reflex creates an involuntary twisting and bending of one side of the trunk due to an accident, impact, fall or even surgery. Imagine the way your body twists when you try to  move away from a tickle in the ribs for example, that would be a quite similar pattern.

If one side of the waist and trunk are involuntarily contracted (which means you can’t voluntarily relax them fully), your pelvis will be pulled out of alignment. This causes one side of your trunk to work differently to the other. The glutes fire on one side, but not the same on the other. Now you are walking around a little bit off kilter, one leg and hip doing more work than the other, eventually, one of your knees gets sore, or your hip starts getting cranky from the uneven workload. Or your lower back, or even your shoulder. Until one day you find yourself saying something like, “Hey! My glute won’t fire…”

But it’s not just your glute is it? Muscles never, ever work in isolation. It’s all the muscles of the waist, all the spinal rotators, even the abdominals and the hip flexors too. Muscles always work in groups and in patterns. So if your glute isn’t firing, you can be 100% positive that the synergists and antagonists are also not operating optimally either. You are the proud owner of an habituated Trauma Reflex.

Have someone take your photo from the front and the back. Take a good, hard look at this photo. Here’s a hint, whenever one side of your body is assymetrical or out of balance and different from the other side, you have a Trauma Reflex. Look for the following clues that would reveal a possible Trauma Reflex.

  1. Are your Shoulders level?
  2. Are your hips level?
  3. Is your head slightly tilted to one side or shifted to one side?
  4. Is the space between your arms and your torso different on each side?
  5. Is your torso sitting directly atop your pelvis or is it shifted to one side?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you do indeed, have an habituation of the Trauma Reflex.

Do you think it would be a good idea to put a heavy barbell on top of a body that displays these signs? Or run 10 miles? Or cycle 50 miles? Even walking with a Trauma Reflex can lead to problems. Performing any athletic endeavour when your pelvis, shoulders and trunk are out of balance can potentially cause injuries; it is a truly joyless experience. Squatting and Deadlifting with a Trauma Reflex will almost definitely lead to injury over a long enough time frame or under a large enough load. Running or cycling will lead to more wear and tear on one side of the body as you are essentially off balance all the time. There is also a very, very good chance that you will have some habituated Green Light and Red Light Reflex as well as your Trauma Reflex. Why? Because everybody does; we all live in the same world and deal with the everyday stresses and strains of modern life.

So how does one regain the ability to fire the glute, reinstate your balance, improve your movement ability and get back to the sport or activity you enjoy?

Get thee to a Clinical Somatic Educator and experience Hands-On Lessons so you can get hands on feedback to release the Three Reflexes and eliminate SMA even quicker than you can do it on your own. You will also learn how to perform safe, simple Somatic Movements. Somatic Movements are restorative and preventative movements that teach you how to recreate each of the Three Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma) yourself and then slowly relax out of them, this is called pandiculating. You can try these Somatic Movements right now over at the Learn Somatics YouTube channel.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

What IS Somatic Education?

Somatic Education is a simple process of neuromuscular re-education that allows you to regain voluntary control of all the muscles of your body so that optimal muscle function and comfort can be restored, and then maintained, for the long term. When we have full control of our muscles, they will not cause pain. Only muscles that we have lost voluntary control over, and which are chronically tense (SMA) cause pain. Relaxed muscles do not ache.

Somatic Education is an education based approach to pain relief, wellness, health and mobility that honors the neurological fact that our brains have absolute control over our muscles. Any attempt to change the condition of, or optimize the functioning of, our muscles must involve our brain. If the brain is involved it means there is a learning component and true change only comes through learning. By learning new and more efficient ways to use our muscles we can make long term changes to our body, or should I say to our ‘Soma’ (our body experienced from within).

There are two ways to achieve this;

Hands-On Somatic Lessons
Clinical Somatic Education systematically addresses the Three Brain Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light, Trauma) over the course of 2-4 Lessons. The practitioner guides the client through some specific movement patterns and provides gentle hands on feedback to the client to help them to properly sense the various muscles involved. Once the client can sense or feel these muscles they can begin to regain control of them and in turn release and relax them back to their proper resting length. Clients are then taught a series of Somatic Movements that they can do themselves at home so they can maintain and refine this new muscular control and freedom.

Somatic Movements
These are a series of safe, simple floor based movement patterns that enable us to consciously recreate the Three Brain Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light, Trauma) so that we may consciously de-create them. The goal of the Exercises is to pandiculate into and out of the Reflexes eliminating SMA. This is akin to hitting ‘reset’ on our muscle function. When your PC or laptop is acting up, the first thing we do is usually to turn it off, and then turn it on again. This allows the sytem to reset or reboot. With Somatic Movement we are doing the same thing for our brain-muscle connection. The only difference being we do the opposite, we turn the muscle fully ON, and then slowly turn it fully OFF. This simple act resets or reboots our muscle function and control for freer, more comfortable muscles.

In the video below I demonstrate a Somatic Movement called the Back Lift. This movement is great for releasing and relaxing all the muscles of the back of the body and is one of the most fundamental Somatic Movements. This is one of my personal favorites, it will really set you up for a good nights sleep.

The Backlift is one of the most fundamental Somatic Movements

Summary:

  1. Somatic Education is NOT therapy.
  2. Hands-On Somatic Lessons involve learning how to recognise and release all the muscles involved in the Three Brain Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light, Trauma).
  3. Somatic Movements performed regularly allow you to be self correcting in the future for long term pain relief from tight stiff muscles.
  4. Somatics resets or reboots our muscle function and control for freer, more comfortable muscles and improved movment potential.

You can experience more Somatic Movements like the Back Lift for yourself right now at Learn Somatics on YouTube.

As always, thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Pandiculation: Movement Medicine

Pandiculation is the simplest way to restore muscle function and reduce  excess muscle tension, but what is it and how does it work?

Pandiculation is something we are all familiar with, even if we’ve never heard of it. A ‘yawn’ is a reflexive pandiculation, and something we have all done countless times. We normally think of a ‘yawn’ as a stretch but on closer inspection this is not the case. When we yawn we actually tighten or contract the muscles of our jaw, neck, upper back and often our arms and shoulders, we then slowly relax back to rest. So far from stretching when we yawn, we first contract and then slowly relax, and that is exactly what pandiculation involves.

If you would like to see some truly expert pandiculating, find yourself a cat. Cats possess incredible agility, phenomenal reflexes, can climb anything, turn on a six pence and contort themselves into some bizarre positions in order to clean themselves. They also pandiculate, a lot. Most animals in the wild will pandiculate somewhere in the order of 40-50 times a day. Whenever they wake from sleep they will automatically pandiculate. And why do they do this?

TO PREPARE THEIR NERVOUS SYSTEM AND THEIR MUSCLES FOR MOVEMENT!

Lion_PandaBig cat, big pandiculation.
This lion is pandiculating his back
and neck, not stretching his belly

That is the function of pandiculation, preparing the muscles for movement. Keep that in mind.

So with the ‘what?’ covered, let’s get into the ‘how?’. Pandiculation starts with a strong voluntary contraction/tightening of a muscle or group of muscles (this is a Motor output). This contraction/tightening of the muscles is sensed and measured by the sensory receptors within the muscles (muscle spindle fibres) and the tendons (golgi tendon organs). These sensory receptors send this new sensory information (input) from the muscles to the Sensory Cortex of the brain. Namely that the length of the muscle has reduced and the level of tension in the muscle has increased. This new input allows the Sensory Motor Cortex to ‘sense’ or become ‘aware of’ the muscle or muscles in question.

Once this has occured the next step is to slowly and carefully contract less… contract less… contract less all the way back to complete rest. By going slowly, we allow the Sensory Cortex time to sense the muscle lengthening and the reduction in the level of contraction/tension. When the contraction has been fully released we come to complete rest and pause. This pause is critically important as it again, allows the Sensory Cortex the time to sense that the muscle length and level of tension have changed.

By systematically pandiculating all the major muscle groups we can reduce the level of tension held involuntarily in the body at a given time. Essentially we are deliberately relaxing all our muscles. The result is improved movement, a reduction or elimination of muscle pain, improved co-ordination and proprioception and a deep sense of relaxation.

Remember muscles that are tight/contracting are working. Work requires energy. Unnecessary tightness/contraction is unnecessary work. It is a waste of energy. Your energy.

By pandiculating the muscles involved in the Three Brain Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma) we can reset these patterns of contraction so that the muscles can be at rest, no longer distorting our posture, causing pain and draining our energy.

If you would like to Learn Somatics to pandiculate all the muscles of the body and improve your movement head on over to Learn Somatics on YouTube to get started today.

As always, thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie