Why Are So Many People Living With Chronic Pain?

Shutterstock/Artem Furman

According to this study, 28 million people in the UK are living with chronic pain. That is almost half of their entire population. Think about that for a moment. 28 million people living with chronic pain. In a wealthy, first world, industrialised nation.

Those quite frankly crazy numbers prompted me to have a quick google for some statistics for the US, Ireland, Europe and globally.

USA: “In 2016, an estimated 20.4% of U.S. adults had chronic pain and 8.0% of U.S. adults had high-impact chronic pain.” (source)

Ireland: “Chronic pain is thought to affect 1.65 million people in Ireland, with chronic back pain one of the more common diagnoses.” (source)

Europe: 20% of all Europeans experience chronic pain “…200 million musculoskeletal disorders and 100 million people experiencing other forms of chronic pain.” (source)

Globally: “Estimates suggest that 20% of adults suffer from pain globally and 10% are newly diagnosed with chronic pain each year.” (source)

High percentages of people suffering with chronic pain places a massive strain on healthcare services and costs the economy billions.

“The two health conditions most clearly associated with disability benefits are musculoskeletal disorders (particularly non-specific lower back pain and general chronic pain syndromes) and mental health problems. In the UK, these complaints comprise more than 50% of sick certification. Musculoskeletal complaints, predominantly mild to moderate in severity, and often with no clear or consistent underlying pathology, account for around 20% of benefit recipients in the UK, and therefore account for a significant proportion of incapacity for work20. Given that the annual economic costs associated with sickness absence and worklessness amount to over £100 billion21, the impact of pain and associated conditions remains a significant contributory factor.” (source)

How did we get to this point? With all our technology, medical advancements, nutritional supplements, oils, ointments and tinctures we still have not addressed something as common as chronic musculoskeletal pain. We put men on the Moon, and rovers on Mars, but back pain? Sorry, no idea.

And what is it about modern industrialised societies that leads to such high numbers of chronic pain sufferers? What has changed?

I believe one major factor is that our modern environment is now unrecognisable to how it was even 15 years ago. Technological advancements, and the rise of smartphones and internet connected gadgets has led to a sharp increase in how connected we are, and in turn, how many potential stressors we are exposed to.

People are constantly connected, or ‘on’. Work email alerts, FB alerts, IG alerts, LinkedIn alerts, SMS alerts, Whatsapp alerts, alerts, alerts, alerts, ALERTS! Kids, spouses, family, jobs, friends. All of these things are vying for our attention. This creates an almost imperceptible background milieu of chronic low level stress. Except it’s not imperceptible at all.

Humans respond automatically and subconsciously, to all of the above. Our landau response (Green Light Reflex) is triggered. On a wholly subconscious level we mobilise ourselves, preparing to attend to all these demands, by contracting our back muscles. This contraction of the back is the beginning of the act of moving forward, out into the world. Moving forward to deal with alerts, life etc. This is why “musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress.”(Source) Go, go, go! More, more, more!

Then there’s social media, a digital addiction which can bring its own heady mix of validation-seeking, fear-mongering and anxiety to people’s lives. This can trigger our startle reflex (Red Light Reflex) further increasing our stress levels. Nothing inherently wrong with social media by the way, but it is defintely prudent to limit your exposure.

Our environment has changed far faster than we have. Whenever there is an environmental change, the inhabitants of that environment (that’s us) must also change. It just so happens that the modern environment we have created for ourselves is incredibly fast paced, over stimulating and highly stressful for many of its inhabitants.

It is predicted, and expected, that our technological environment will continue to change even faster in the future. The meteoric advancement of technology will continue unabated. So how can we keep up? In order to survive in this new technological environment, we must be capable of change. We must become as adaptable as our technology.

We must learn how to adapt, and to continue adapting as we go forward. We need to learn skills and techniques which will enable us to cope with our new highly stimulating and potentially stressful environment.

A good start would be to learn how to better monitor, and regulate our responses to stressful stimuli. This will involve becoming more aware of ourselves, our automatic and involuntary responses and how we interact with our new environment. Ironically the ancient aphorism “know thyself” will become ever more relevant and important as we speed into the future.

A regular Somatic Movement practice can help us in this regard. It can provide the means to monitor, regulate and release the involuntary muscular tension that is triggered in response to the myriad stressors in our environment. The same involuntary muscle tension that can cause much of the chronic musculoskeletal pain experienced by so many.

The solutions to living in a highly stimulating and fast paced modern technological environment will not come in the form of a pill, a powder, a gadget or an app. It will come from cultivating your own self awareness and developing more control over your self and your responses to the ever growing number of stressors in this brave new world.

If any of this resonates with you, and you are interested in acquiring practical stress management, muscle pain relief and relaxation techniques, consider learning Somatics. There are more avenues for learning than ever before. If you’d like to learn with me, you can get in touch with me here.

As always, thanks for reading.

learnsomatics.ie

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

I often use the following diagram to help explain the concept of the ‘Soma’. I have found it to be a useful way to elaborate on this idea. In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna defined ‘Soma’ as ‘the body experienced from within’. That is, your first-person internalised experience of yourself.

So let’s say the circle above represents your physical body and all its associated physical sensations. Hunger, thirst, hot, cold, pleasure, pain, tension, fatigue, and so on. These sensations are constantly changing. So we include arrows on the circle to reflect this ever changing flow of sensations

Now we add a second circle to represent your mind or mental faculties. All your thought processes essentially. We add an arrow to this circle to indicate that thoughts and mental activity are also always in flux, changing, flowing.

And we add a third overlapping circle. This overlapping circle represents your emotional world, your moods and feelings. Again these are transient, fleeting ever changing, so we add the arrow.

Traditionally in western culture we tend to look at these facets of ourselves as somewhat separate from each other. Mental health as distinct from physical health etc. But the reality is…

…you exist right in the middle where all these elements converge and overlap. That is the point from where we live out our first-person experience of ourselves. The ‘Soma’;And what is it that we experience? The constant flow of ever changing physical sensations, mental activity, thoughts and emotions. All three aspects of our experience are overlapping and concurrent, and they all have direct influence over each other. The following would be a closer visual representation of what we experience…

The divisions between our physical, mental and emotional experience becoming far more indistinct.

Our thoughts influence our emotions and in turn our physical body – mind racing, feeling anxious and tense.
Our emotions influence our physical body and in turn our thoughts – one can be physically sick with worry/fear/apprehension.
Our physical body influences our emotions and in turn our thoughts.- angry and frustrated by chronic muscular pain.

Because they can all influence each other we can use one to make a change to another. Like using exercise to improve mental health, or breathing exercises to calm our emotions and quiet our mind.

But it is not so much that these elements influence each other, rather that they are different elements of the same thing as illustrated by the diagram. Looked at it in this way we begin to realise that there is no such thing as a mental state that is distinct from a physical or emotional state. There are really only unified states of being that encompass all facets of our experience; mental, emotional and physical. ‘Somatic’ states if you will.

To ‘experience your body from within’ is to experience all these facets of yourself, simultaneously, in real time, like we all do, all day every day.

So what is the relevance of all this?

Of the three elements, mental, emotional, and physical, the easiest one to manipulate is actually the physical, because we have, or can very quickly develop, direct control our our muscular system. This is where a Somatic movement practice comes in. By learning how to regulate your own muscle tension and increase your awareness of your physical body, you are also learning how to regulate an increase your awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Because as we have discovered, they are all just different elements of your ‘Soma’, your direct first-person experience of your own process. When regulating the ‘physical’, what you are actually doing is regulating your physical, mental and emotional, your unified state of being.

When you can release the muscular tension that accumulates in the physical body, you are also releasing the associated thoughts and emotional states that are bound up in the physical state. Because it’s all the one process. You are not a mind and a body, you are a constantly moving, changing, evolving, growing, self-aware process. You are a body, experienced from within. You are a ‘Soma’.

If any of these ideas resonate with you and you think you’d like to learn more about Somatics, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to get in touch. You can contact me here and you can find my online Somatic movement classes and 1-1 options here.

Thanks for reading!

learnsomatics.ie

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 caused by 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!

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.

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 found this post helpful, please share it with anyone you think may benefit. Thanks!

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Hard Body, Soft Bed – Soft Body, Hard Bed

When I first began a 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 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 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 ridiculously 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, 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 Self Care Exercises 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. With a daily Somatics practice the floor can be your friend again, just like it was when you were a kid.

~

www.learnsomatics.ie

 

Why do you have stiff, sore Joints?

Joint health is affected by many variables. The medical community generally view joint pain or problems as structural in nature and on occassion this is indeed the case. However, a far more common cause of joint problems is chronically tight and contracted muscles around a joint. Chronically tight muscles are not a structural problem they are a functional problem. Our muscles can easily become too tight as a result of our responses to everyday stresses, from performing repetitive tasks, a lack of movement or from an injury, impact, fall or surgery. These patterns of habitually tight muscles show up in our bodies as the previously discussed Green Light, Red Light and Trauma Reflexes.

How do chronically tight muscles cause joint pain?
When the muscles that articulate a joint are ‘stuck’ at a high level of contraction they are shorter and tighter than is optimal. Short, tight muscles will draw the bones of the joint closer together compressing the joint and leading to pain and restricted movement. If the bony structures in the joint are being pulled too close to each other by the tight muscles these structures can begin to rub off each other and can eventually wear down the cartilage that protects the ends of the bones. So, over time what began as a functional soft tissue or muscular problem becomes a structural problem.

JointPainHip

In the case of the hip joint, pain can be caused by habitually contracted gluteals, piriformis and tensor fascia latae. These are all muscles that articulate the hip and leg. However it is never just one muscle that causes the problem as muscles always work in concert. The problem is always a larger, full body pattern of contraction. One sided hip pain, for example is often the result of a Trauma Reflex. It follows then, that an effective solution to the problem cannot only address one muscle. Learning to release the Trauma Reflex and regain balance and control of the muscles of the centre of your body will go a long way towards resolving your hip pain!

By improving the function of the muscles around a given joint and addressing the full body pattern of contraction we can release ALL the muscles back to their true resting length. Then, compression of the joint is reduced and normal range of motion and comfort of the joint are restored. This outcome can be achieved safely, quickly and easily through the educational process of Clinical Somatics (aka Hanna Somatics). You must address the full body pattern of contraction by RELEARNING how to regain control over ALL the muscles involved in the pattern of contraction.

If you have tight painful joints and restricted movement and would like to learn how to release and relax your muscles for freer more comfortable movement, you could benefit from a course of Lessons in Clinical Somatic Education.

~

www.clinicalsomatics.ie

Somatics for Stress Resilience – Empty Your Bucket

We all have a certain capacity for stress, some of us can handle more, others less. The one thing we all have in common though is that we all respond to stress in the same way. We contract, and our muscles tighten. If the stress is ongoing, the contraction and tightening are ongoing.

Let’s compare our personal capacity to handle stress to a bucket. Some people have large buckets, some people have small buckets, and some have medium size buckets.

empty_bucket_thumb

When we experience stress, a little (or maybe a lot) of water is added to our bucket. Over time, we experience more stresses and our bucket fills up with water until eventually there is no more room for any more. The bucket is now heavy and cumbersome. At this point our capacity to handle stress is reached and then breached as represented by the water beginning to pour out over the sides of the bucket. We now have a very heavy and unwieldy bucket spilling water everywhere.

What happens when our stress levels exceed our capacity to deal with the stress?

We have all, at one time or another, experienced times in our lives when we underwent high or ongoing levels of stress. When we have to endure high levels of ongoing stress we inevitably get sick, we get tired, we age quicker, we become unhappy, we become irritable… So as the bucket fills up with water, our bodies become tighter and tighter due to the involuntary muscular contractions in response to the stress. Our bodies EXPRESS stress as tension, and they express excessive stress as excessive tension.

Unfortunately, stress is an unavoidable part of life, so the bucket is going to fill up in response to stress whether we like it or not. But! If we could empty the bucket somehow…

Well there is a very simple way to empty the stress bucket, Somatic Self Care Exercises.

Somatic Self Care Exercises are simple floor based movements that allow you to quickly and easily lower the level of tension in your muscles in a systematic way by pandiculating, effectively tipping water out of your bucket. An empty bucket can take more water if necessary (read handle more stress!) and in this way allow you to be more resilient to the every day stresses we all experience. A daily Somatic practice will allow you to start and/or finish each day, with an empty, light and easy to carry ‘bucket’.

If you would like to learn how to use Somatic Self Care Exercises to relieve stress, increase your resilience to stress,  improve your movement and eliminate muscle pain, get in touch with me here…

~

www.clinicalsomatics.ie

Green Light means Go!

What is the Green Light Reflex and why must we be able to recognize it??

The Green Light Reflex is an automatic brain reflex that is activated every time we are called to action, .ie; when our phone rings, when someone calls our name, when we have a deadline looming, when we notice a new email in our inbox etc. The job of Green Light Reflex is to contract all the major muscles of the back of our body so as to enable us to move forwards (see image below). When triggered the muscles of the back extend the spine, the shoulders are pulled back, the lower back is pulled into an arch, the head is pulled back somewhat, the glutes, hamstrings and calves tighten, straightening the legs and rotating the legs outward. It is a very positive reflex, it is this reflex which enabled us to learn how to roll, crawl, walk and run. However, if it is activated too frequently, or too much, it can become habituated. What does this mean?

Green Light_72ppi

Well, the brain gets very good at what it does repeatedly, repetition of actions is the method by which the brain LEARNS. So if a reflex is activated REPEATEDLY the brain LEARNS to be ready to perform that action (activating all the muscles of the back of the body) at all times. The brain will then hold those muscles at a low level of contraction ALL THE TIME. At this point it becomes an involuntary action, in that you are no longer aware that you are doing it. What you will be aware of though is the result of the habitual contraction namely, fatigue and pain in your lower back and hips or any combination thereof. Habituated Green Light Reflex can lead to back pain, herniated discs, sciatica, hip pain and knee pain. You will also notice that you cannot bend forward easily any more as in order to bend forward your back muscles would need to relax and lengthen, but as you have habituated contraction of all the muscles of the back of your body, you cannot do that. So now you have lost voluntary control of the muscles of your back. In Somatic Education we would say you have developed Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in relation to the Green Light Reflex. You can activate the reflex still, in fact you are really good at that, but you have forgotten how to turn it off. The wooden mannequinn below approximates the posture of Green Light Reflex.

Mannequin_Stress_Reflex

If you’re past 30 years of age, you put it down to aging. But let’s be clear, habituation of the Green Light Reflex has nothing to do with aging and everything to do with how you respond to the many different stresses you experience in your life. It is a neurological event that results in a FUNCTIONAL problem. If you end the neurological (brain) event, you can solve the functional muscle problem.

The Green Light Reflex is just one of three sub cortical brain reflexes that are of concern to Somatic Educators. Check back soon to learn about the other two…

Summary:

  1. The Green Light Reflex is an automatic brain reflex.
  2. Green Light Reflex helps us to move forward by contracting the muscles of the back of our bodies.
  3. It is activated many times during the day.
  4. If we activate it too much without turning it off, we forget HOW to turn it off.
  5. When this happens we develop back pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.
  6. Habituated Green Light Reflex can cause herniated discs, back pain, neck pain, sciatica and knee pain among others.

www.clinicalsomatics.ie