Wearing Your Shoulders as Earmuffs
You wake up in the morning and just after you open your eyes you turn your head to find your neck is stiff, there is an achy discomfort, or both. You may think your neck is in such bad shape because of the way you slept, but what if that’s not exactly how it happened…
This time of the year the day begins almost as dark as it was when you drifted off to sleep. You slowly rise and swing your legs off the side of the bed. Your feet hit the floor and your off into your morning routine. Before long it is almost time to leave the house. Once you are properly dressed you venture from your house to a car and then from a car to your destination. If you plan ahead and all things fall into place your car is warmed up, and you are wearing the right clothes to keep the heat in and the cold out. But what happens if your morning does not go as planned?
What is it that you might see people doing out in the winter weather in order to keep warm? They tend to dance around and move quickly in order to generate some heat, while at the same time bringing their extremities (arms, legs, head and neck) closer to their bodies. We cross our arms, bend our knees, and like a turtle we loose our neck deep into our rising shoulders. This reflexive action contracts muscles and holds them tight in order to conserve energy and keep in body heat. In Somatics this action is called the “red light”, or startle reflex.
In the winter you will see that people will wear their gloves, hat, jacket, sweaters, and long pants, yet quite a few of them are missing a scarf. With no scarf in the cold weather most of them will be wearing their shoulders as earmuffs. This tightening of muscles and holding them for long periods of time can create chronic contractions that can eventually bring about pain and stiffness. If we are prepared for the weather, and not a slave to fashion, most of the surfaces of our bodies are covered with warm clothing. Yet there is one area that can be more vulnerable than the others, it’s your neck.
The neck is very versatile and flexible. Consequently, it trades in the more protective qualities of other parts of the body. In the cold weather the continual holding of the shoulder shrugged position is a natural fight or flight reflex. It is the autonomic nervous system working to protect the neck when under attack from an external force, or in this case to protect from the loss of heat. The shoulders rise up to cover the sides and back of the neck while the chin comes down and forward to protect the front of the neck. The cranium and rib cage act like retractable armor. This adaptive reflex helps keep the option for a flexible neck while still having the option for protection when it is needed. This is a wonderful response when activated for a short length of time but to sustain this tension for long periods of time can create a chronic muscle contractions. This leads to the widely used idiom of the “pain in the neck”
Lets go back to that moment when you first woke up in the morning and felt that your neck was stiff and aching and you thought “I must have slept wrong”. Well the truth is that if your neck has a chronic pattern of tightness that it either began in the exposure to cold weather, stress, or misuse during the previous day. This unconscious tension may be the main cause of your morning neck pain.
Lets say your muscles have a range of contraction from zero to one hundred percent. Lets also say that your neck muscles were holding steady around eighty percent while you were outside in the cold. The other morning on your way to the car you might have gotten into an extended impromptu conversation with a neighbor while bringing in the trash cans, or needed to scrape the snow and ice from your car. Your head was focused on completing the task at hand and you may have been ignoring the body’s messages. All that time in order to protect yourself from the cold, your nervous system was activating the eighty percent contraction of the muscles in your neck and shoulders. This natural “red light reflex” of neck and shoulder tension is attempting the only way it knows how in order to survive and keep your body temperature from dropping to quickly. When you finally get in the car to go to work your neck has set a tension pattern for the foreseeable future.
On the way to work you may hold your shoulders up until the car is warmed enough. Then there are added stresses such as traffic, misplaced paperwork, or your may have been running late. Once you arrive at work there may be ongoing tensions with co-workers, rumors of pay cuts looming, that long overdue promotion has not come through yet, etc… Then most of the day you’re no more than a floating head in a fixed position immersed in an digital world. The body continues to react to each new event as it happens, or as your mind obsesses about the thoughts of these events. Repetitive stress and its cumulative effects can deeply reinforce this chronic “red light” contraction. With out a conscious way to get some relief stress can cumulatively wear you down both physically and psychologically.
More than likely when you went to bed that night the muscles in your neck were still working overtime. You may ask “But its not cold in my bedroom and the stress of the day is over so why would they still be working”? The answer is that when the “red light reflex” activates and it is sustained for a period of time the involuntary nervous system takes over. This unconscious reflex then keeps the neck tight long after you are away from the external stressors. Those muscles are now stuck in the “On” position. When you attempt to relax them, they are not available for you to release because the involuntary nervous system has taken control. Any attempts you make to stretch or rub your muscles will only bring temporary relief. For soon after your done your nervous system contracts the muscles again. Once in bed you fluff your pillow and then adjust your body to find the best position to sleep. Eventually, you drift off in hopes of a restful night. Little do you know the neck muscles are still activated, lets say around forty to fifty percent. These activated muscles will work tirelessly all night long to protect you from cold weather and stress that you left behind hours ago.
You wake up and as you return to consciousness, you roll over and you feel that familiar stiffness, and pain. When you sit up and look back for something to blame there are no large rocks in your bed, nor did the ceiling fall in on you while you slept. All you see is an unmade bed, and pillow staring back at you.
Without the knowledge of how muscles work, how are you expected to relax them on your own? It makes sense that you might blame the way you slept that night as the cause of your neck pain. You may even try to put a mental band-aid on the situation by looking at fixing the issue with external part time solutions by planning to invest in a new bed, or yet another expensive pillow. Little do you know the pain really started in your neck the day(s) before. With "Hanna Somatic Education ®" not only would you know how to alleviate the pain and stiffness in that moment, but just before bed you would have known how to preventatively turn off the tension that started the day before.
Although humans are very adaptable beings we sometimes forget the sense and awareness of our own bodies. It is a gradual forgetfulness that Dr. Thomas Hanna called Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA). Even if you currently had more awareness of your body, what could you do about it but look to an external source for a solution? There is a way to be self aware andget results from the inside out. With Somatic Health Solutions ®" you will rediscover your Soma. A Soma is “the living body as experienced from within” and the way back to that first person perspective is through the clinical discipline of "Hana Somatic Education ®". This unique form of Education returns you to your innate yet forgotten ability to alleviate pain, restore flexibility, cope with stress of modern living, and alleviate the symptoms associated with aging. When you begin to embody Somatics you are empowered with a way to take care of yourself. You will learn to embody the insightful teachings of Hanna Somatics by:
1) Attending regular individual Clinical Somatic Education Sessions
2) Taking Somatic Education Classes to deepen and refine your discoveries and integration of the daily Somatic maintenance movements
3) All along you will engage in your daily discipline of slow and controlled Somatic movements. This will allow you to reinforce and explore your Soma’s discoveries every day and in each moment.
From this cumulative Somatic Education process you will cultivate a way to “self diagnose, self alleviate, and self maintain your Soma’s health” (Hanna, 1988) for the rest of your life. Just imagine a way to alleviate your pain daily and in the moment without medication. Although the bed and pillow may be old, there will always be new daily stresses to deal with, and the winters will come each year, you will be prepared from the inside out. As you embody a Somatic way of being you will be more self sufficient, pain free, and supple. The cold winds of life will continue to blow, yet your soma will know how to bend rather than break.
Ryan Moschell CHSE, LMT
2 – 11 - 2012
- Hanna, Thomas. 1988. Somatics, (Intro)