“You translate everything, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, into muscular tension,” said Australian actor F.M. Alexander. Our nervous system can record our reaction to certain life events, and our muscles can continue to tell that story over and over, and over again. We respond to life events with physical tension. With repetition, reaction to stress, and lingering trauma, this reflexive physical tension can continue into chronic muscular tension and chronic pain, as well as depression and anxiety.
Tensing our muscles is so automatic for many of us that we don’t know how to hold our bodies in any other way. Hans Selye, a famous endocrinologist, once said, “all of life is stress.” Our reaction to our daily stress gets absorbed into our bodies; if we’re not aware of it, we can go days, months, years, even an entire lifetime in a state of amnesia — called sensory-motor amnesia.
Sensory-motor amnesia is a “habituated state of forgetfulness of how certain muscles feel and how to effectively coordinate them” — chronic muscular contractions that lead to the common physical complaints that we usually mistake for the natural aging process, according to the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training.
I didn’t know any of this until recently when I started to explore Hanna Somatic Education® (HSE), developed by Thomas Hanna, PhD, which is a system of neuromuscular education (mind/body training) that gently addresses chronic pain, restores freedom of movement, and relieves stress. Somatics works specifically with sensory-motor amnesia, teaching the brain how to relearn muscle motions. Ryan Moschell (pictured above), a long-time Annapolis, Maryland massage therapist, is now a certified Hanna Somatic educator. Instead of manipulating muscles for his clients full-time as he once did as a therapist, he now also teaches clients how to do the work starting within themselves, by learning how to sense and move specific muscles to relieve pain and tension by utilizing the brain and nervous system.
“Learning HSE from a certified Hanna Somatic educator empowers you to have more control over your own body and lifelong neuromuscular wellness,” Moschell explained to me.
I asked him to give me an example, and he told me about a time when he was in the three-year training program, and he had to lead a somatic movement class. Nervous about being a novice somatics teacher — and that his peers would be critiquing his upcoming performance — he was very anxious that he would make a mistake. His anxiety collected as a tightness or heaviness in his chest and his gut. Before he got up to teach, one of the teachers from the core teaching team led his group through a somatic movement process where they were releasing muscles around the sternum or center of the chest. Moschell explained:
She had us start with the right side — consciously contracting the muscles that move the ribcage and torso and releasing them with control — moving top to bottom. After completing the series of somatic movements (such as contracting the muscles around the rib cage and torso that alleviate the reflexive and chronic contractions that come from sensory-motor amnesia), I took a moment and checked in with my body to sense what had happened. I was surprised to find that I had absolutely no trace of anxiety on the right side of my chest, and continued to have full-blown anxiety on the left side of my chest. It was as if someone had cut the emotion in half and had completely removed one side. I spent some time integrating this experience, and realized that since my mental reaction to the stress of teaching my peers can manifest as chronically tight muscles, then having some conscious control over — and being able to alleviate — the tight muscles could in turn affect my emotional state. This was a profound insight for me, as previously this type of emotional state would just happen to me, and I felt as if there was nothing I could do. Now I was seeing a direct correlation to the mind/body connection of the somatic paradigm.
F.M. Alexander stated, “You can’t do something you don’t know if you keep doing what you do know.” I realized I had just crossed over, and that the “don’t know” was becoming “the know.” As I lay there with my teaching experience still in front of me, the overall anxiousness I still had on the left side began to loosen its power over me. I now knew how to access the physical ground upon which this mental stress in my body was based. The cycle was broken, and I felt empowered to utilize this new adaptability skill anytime and anywhere I needed to use it. This experience has changed my life. It is not that anxiety doesn’t creep in from time to time. But now I had a deeper understanding of how my body reacts to life events through my reaction to real or perceived stress response, and how I can have a bit more control and can consciously participate in maintaining my somatic (brain/body) health rather than be held hostage by emotional states.
As a certified Hanna Somatic educator, Moschell does not claim to work with psychological states of depression or anxiety in his practice. He is not a mental health professional. He educates his clients to work with the chronically tight muscles that can come from sensory-motor amnesia and thereby helps them to embody a new awareness and practice specialized somatic movements.
“As my clients continue to receive clinical somatic education sessions and do their daily maintenance movements at home between sessions, there is a cumulative effect that not only alleviates the physical symptoms and limitations, but also has a positive and holistic effect on many parts of their lives,” he explains. “Not only my clients report this to me, but their friends and family start to tell them that they notice something has definitely changed for the better.”
To learn more about how somatic movement works, visit Ryan’s video.
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Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.