Many people experience chronic back and neck pain at some point in their lives and it can be debilitating. If you aren’t one of these people, I’m sure you know people who are. A new study published in September 2022 demonstrates the efficacy of using pandiculation with Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) to relieve chronic back and neck pain. This unique self-care method releases chronic muscle tension by retraining the nervous system. I personally am a testament to HSE for relieving my own chronic muscle pain since I’ve been training and teaching this powerful practice.Continue reading
It’s all too frighteningly familiar: A man walks into a workplace and starts shooting, leaving many people dead and others injured. News reports later reveal that he was angry for being fired from his job or under great personal stress. In one scenario some six years ago, the owner of a sausage factory in California, who had complained about being harassed by the government over health violations at his plant, shot and killed three meat inspectors who showed up to examine the facility. A friend of the assailant commented, “He was a good man, but pressure, pressure—everybody blows up under pressure.”
But does this tendency to blow up with anger and aggression truly lurk in everyone? I’ve always wondered.
Classic responses to stress
At the core of our existence is the need to survive. Meeting this basic need requires a minimum of food, shelter, and safety. Lack in any of these can trigger fear and anxiety, which puts significant stress on our nervous system. From the earliest times, humankind has responded to stress in relatively predictable ways. In the 1920s and ’30s researchers described the two best-known reactions: lashing out or running away, also known as “fight or flight.” When threat is detected, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks in, producing stress hormones that activate glands and organs to help us defend the body against attack. Glucose is released to give us energy. Blood flows to the muscles and brain; heart rate and blood pressure increase; blood flow for digestion decreases. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic branch, known as the “rest and digest” system, calms things down.
Another, less well-known, more recently recognized protective response to fear is “freeze”—like a deer’s response to the glare of headlights from an oncoming car. The freeze response most often occurs when neither fight nor flight is a viable option. We don’t fight or run away; we become immobile. The response is a form of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which often manifests as an inability to communicate or take necessary steps for self-preservation and may include feelings of apathy, detachment, and numbing. Freeze may occur when we feel paralyzed by survivor’s guilt or are overwhelmed. Like fight or flight, freeze is not a conscious response but one that occurs deep within our nervous system.
Tend and befriend response
The bulk of research on fight or flight has focused on male subjects. More recently, however, expanded research has identified a very different response in females. Compared to most males, females tend to respond to stress with less intense physical and emotional aggression. Instead, they may first gather and tend their offspring and move close to other females for social support and comfort. This response, dubbed “tend and befriend,” has the effect of calming the nervous system.
As research revealed that women are more likely to respond to stress through tending and befriending than men, scientists wondered whether there is something else at play beyond maternal instinct. The answer appears to be linked to the pituitary hormone oxytocin. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone, is released when females engage in nurturing behavior, and that inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity seen in fight-or-flight reactions to stress. Females’ estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while male androgens inhibit its release.
A study found that at the end of a highly stressful workday, a mother’s response is increased nurturing of her children, which stimulates oxytocin, thereby reducing stress. In addition, women are more likely turn to others for support—e.g., talking on the phone with friends or relatives. By contrast, fathers are more likely to withdraw or have interpersonal conflicts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long and challenging time for everyone, and it has taken a huge toll on our nervous systems. As we feared for our lives and those of our loved ones, our stress levels naturally heightened. Mandatory lockdowns exacerbated our stress. Those who could hunkered down in their homes, while others literally risked their lives working in “essential services.” Then additional events—most notably, widely publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of white law enforcement officers—exploded into social and political unrest, resulting in more fear and anxiety and more people pitted against each other.
Throughout this pandemic we’ve experienced a loss of connection. Everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. We’ve had to choose safety over love and belonging. All this has occurred because our nervous system has detected that our essential survival is at stake. During the pandemic, the “fight” response has been most in evidence in health care workers fighting for their patients’ lives. These workers coupled their fight with compassionate tending and befriending.
Our desire for connection and nurturing at this time has never been greater. What would we have done without delivery services, phones, and computers, Zoom, and Netflix? People have asked me, “Don’t you miss seeing people, besides on the TV?” Sure, but Zoom has been a blessing for me in the work I do and connecting with friends. Whether it’s one-on-one or with groups, talking face-to-face with real live people has saved me. Meditation and Somatic Movement have helped me stay connected to and in harmony with myself. But living alone, I do long to be physically present again with people—and especially to be held by my favorite tango partners and move in sync with the music! Though, sadly, I will miss the ones who succumbed to the virus.
I believe COVID-19 has awakened us to our collective vulnerability. It’s also stimulated the tend-and-befriend response in many people—not only female. Caring for ourselves and those close to us has been number one, yes. But hasn’t it also revealed the truth about our interconnectedness? As we consider ourselves part of a larger “us,” we realize that protecting ourselves also protects others. We are not separate and we really do need one another. We’ve seen this play out across the world with ordinary people joining together to help and protect the most vulnerable in their community–cultivating “tend and befriend.”
Creating space to tend and befriend
The renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Within all the limitations that have been imposed upon us during the pandemic, haven’t we learned that we can still find ways to shape our lives, find space for what is important? Creating space for compassion—for ourself and others—can help us choose how to respond to events rather than be driven by fear and anxiety. Creating space helps us get out from under whatever we’re feeling as we move forward with our lives.
Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cofounded Tend, a clinical consulting practice focused on preserving the mental well-being of health care practitioners. In an interview for the podcast “On Being,” she talked about the power of pause, gratitude, and savoring. She recommends developing reverence for our bodies and our nervous systems, for seeking whatever releases oxytocin in us and creates a sense of wonderment and curiosity.
I leave you with some words from other wise teachers:
“I go to nature to be soothed and to have my senses put in order.”—John Burroughs, American naturalist
“The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” —Tara Brach, meditation teacher
“Even wearing a mask, others can see the smile in your eyes.” —Karen Ross, hypnotherapist and life coach
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”—Hans Selye, MD, pioneer in understanding stress
We humans spend a lifetime in our bodies, yet all too often we assume that body and mind are separate—the mind controlling what we do, the body dutifully obeying its commands. The eminent neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD, author of Molecules of Emotion, wrote, “Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body—body and mind are one.” The perceived separateness of mind and body has contributed to an epidemic of stress, chronic pain, and sleeplessness in our culture. Cultivating somatic awareness of the integration of our body and mind may help us achieve a greater sense of well-being. It may even extend our lives.
Stress, the nervous system, and the body
As newborns, unlike most animals, we are not able to consciously control our bodies. But as we gradually learn how to move within our bodies and engage our senses, our body awareness expands. This awareness may be arrested, however, as we develop habits and succumb to the stressors of daily living—like when we sit for hours on end in front of a computer or allow our stressful lives to put us in a persistently anxious state. Residues of habitual patterns are held in the body as muscle tension. Regularly experiencing emotions like anger and fear can also cause persistent muscle tension; both can result in various forms of chronic distress.
Our nervous systems evolved to enable us to cope with short-term, life-threatening stressors. The so-called fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful threat to our survival. This is a healthy response as long as the fight is followed by rest and rejuvenation. The pressures of contemporary living can be almost 24/7. Many of us never have a chance to release tension and to really relax. Over time, such unrelieved stress can take an extreme psychological and physical toll in such forms as anxiety and chronic pain.
Body keeps score
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience.” Dr. van der Kolk’s pioneering work on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that the most critical aspect of healing is learning to fully embrace one’s emotional, psychological, and physical self. Having an inner sense of self alerts us to potential disharmonies and enables the body to reharmonize itself.
Our bodies are truly amazing in their structure and function. Information received from our bodies and the environment through our five senses is transmitted to our brain through the nervous system. Habitual stresses and traumas can produce muscle contractions in specific areas of the body. Over time these contractions become so unconscious and imbedded that we lose the capacity to sense or control them. The result is stiffness, soreness, and restricted range of movement. Thomas Hanna, PhD, philosophy professor, founder of the field of somatics, and author of Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, coined the term sensory-motor amnesia for this phenomenon.
The nervous system regulates every function of our body. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously, or involuntarily, regulating bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The somatic nervous system, also known as the voluntary nervous system, contains both nerves that send information to the brain and nerves that send information from the brain to the body and includes motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements like walking or lifting. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is an essential part of life designed to help us avoid harmful or dangerous stimuli or circumstances. The sensation of pain (or even numbness) acts as a messenger, the nervous system’s way of telling us something is wrong. We can ignore its message and suffer, or we can learn from it and take action.
When our senses and feelings become muffled by sensory motor amnesia, we no longer feel fully alive. Our bodies become more rigid, achy, or numb as the range of muscle movement is diminished because we’ve forgotten how to move those muscles. When we believe our mind is separate and takes charge of the body, we may accept that our physical and emotional pain is due to “my limitations” or “getting old.” Such acceptance enhances our feeling of separateness and can cause us to lose our sense of what it means to be human. Consequently, we are unable to realize our full potential.
According to Dr. Hanna, however, the brain is a highly adaptive organ. We can retrain our nervous system, awakening the areas of the brain that have forgotten how to regulate both physical and emotional patterns in the body. Somatic awareness helps us acknowledge the presence of our whole self within our environment, rather than viewing our body as something separate from ourselves. We become acutely aware of our feelings, sensations, movements, and intentions at any given moment. Such self-awareness enables us to address trauma and anxiety and thus promote healing.
“As we grow older, our bodies–and our lives–should continue to improve, right up until the very end.” -Thomas Hanna, founder of Clinical Somatic Education
Classic approaches that may help reawaken body awareness include yoga, t’ai chi, Yoga Nidra meditation, massage, and breathwork. Specific methods developed over the past century include the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Hanna Somatic Education. These practices are similar in that they teach gentle movements to identify and reverse harmful habits and learn to move more freely. Somatic therapies are also being used in psychotherapy for people who suffer from sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, and other physical/emotional ailments.
Participants in a National Institutes of Health study on body awareness reported that cultivating somatic awareness helped them become aware of the differences between thinking about a sensation and directly experiencing the sensation. This awareness has helped them gain a more accepting attitude toward the changing sensations in the body. With less judgment and analysis of situations, they had more openness to various possibilities and solutions. One person noted: “The more comfortable I become in my body and not into my head, the more comfortable I find people are with me.”
My own journey
Cultivating somatic awareness has been a lifelong journey for me, having been drawn to many unique ways of being in my body, including practicing yoga, dancing, and engaging in various forms of movement practices. When I was first introduced to iRest® Yoga Nidra meditation, I immediately fell in love with it because of its emphasis on body awareness, and I knew I wanted to help awaken this awareness in others. Yet, I still struggled with my own patterns of muscle tension, especially when sitting at the computer or driving long distances. I recently enrolled in a somatic movement education training program that teaches simple movements to help relax muscles. I’ve already experienced a positive change in my body, and I am excited to have another tool to teach others that can enable them to experience integration of mind and body and live healthier and perhaps longer lives.
In addition to Dr. Hanna’s book on Somatics, I highly recommend : The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain, by Sarah Warren.
When we are confronted with difficult circumstances, such as enduring a hurricane, witnessing acts of terrorism, having relationship conflicts, or facing serious health concerns, it is common to react with anger, hurt, or feeling separate, isolated, or victimized. Or maybe we shut down and become numb. Continue reading
Comfort, ease, and safety are core elements that contribute to our overall sense of well-being. We are wired to seek comfort, and familiarity feeds this neutral state of being. Our habits help us move efficiently through our daily activities and feel mentally secure.Continue reading
Relieve Stress, Build Resilience, Find Inner Peace
Do you have trouble sleeping, suffer aches and pains, overindulge in food or alcohol? These are just some of the common symptoms of stress, the number 1 health risk in the U.S. What is the cause of your stress? Is it the news, deadlines or financial issues, challenging relationships? It may surprise you that none of these create your stress. The real cause is how you respond to them.
We all have the capacity to build resilience to stress and bounce back from adversities in life. It was built into our DNA back when humans confronted or escaped wild beasts, or endured hard weather conditions. While the “beasts” in our modern world are totally different forms, our thoughts and emotions are just as heightened—except it’s 24/7—never a break.
Relaxation, mindfulness and meditation are powerful and proven ways to help restore your resilience and well-being. These ancient practices are being used today as complimentary to traditional medical, even in the military.
Turning the thinking mind off is one of the first challenges since thoughts can cause emotions to flare. Clarity and wisdom have no way to break through.
Three ways: to help you relax your mind through your body:
- Bring attention into an area of the body, maybe your hands or feet.
- Take a few deep breaths with long exhalations to help you feel into the present moment.
- Recall a real or imagined place where you feel safe, grounded and at ease—and allow yourself to feel these qualities in your body.
In Relieve Stress with iRest® Meditation you’ll learn to integrate practices like these into your life along with many others. iRest, short for Integrative Restoration, is a proven approach to help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, chronic illnesses and so much more. It helps to build inner strength and resilience to better meet life from a place of joy and inner peace. It’s easy to do sitting comfortably or lying down and following the guided meditation. (Check Courses page)
We live in a culture that views success as a process of steadily moving forward, while moving backward implies failure. The title of this article was a phrase used by President Obama in his farewell speech to the nation; he was referring to the historical forward and sometimes backward movement of our country’s progress. Let’s put aside the debate Continue reading
Have you felt overly stressed during the recent election season? Do you feel disheartened with opposing ideologies and uncertainty about the future?
I offer you this short 6-minute stress-relief restorative iRest meditation. May this help you to de-stress, re-harmonize, and access an inner resource to help you restore resilience to meet whatever shows up during the coming times ahead.
I invite you to attend my free iRest meditations on Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon.
Evoking the quality and tone of the modern era, Ernest Hemingway coined the phrase “grace under pressure.” In his major works of fiction, he created protagonists who face defeat without panic, much as he did in his own life. Today, personal and societal pressures have never been greater, which can take a massive toll on our health and well-being, and keeping one’s cool under pressure may never have been harder. When pressures arise, we need to learn how to engage our three brains — head, heart and gut — to help us realize our true self and access the grace to meet life with a resilient spirit. Continue reading
Does the news of the day get you down—global violence, economic and social unrest, and environmental disasters? Do you fear what the future will hold for you and your loved ones? Do you long for things to be better, yet feel helpless? There may just be another landscape with hope for a better world.