The withdrawal response goes hand in hand with fear, apprehension and anxiety. When a person is overwhelmed by these emotions an instant reflex occurs, one that causes us to want to get out of our fearful situation, to withdraw. This lower-brain stem reflex happens so fast we are not aware of it, yet when this unconscious habit is repeated it begins to affect everything we do.
The withdrawal response, also known as the red light reflex because of its stop action not only has an effect on our emotions but also our function and structure. Once the reflex is triggered during a fearful encounter the muscles of the jaw and brow contract, followed quickly by the eyes shutting and shoulder / neck muscles contracting. Immediately after that the elbows bend, arms to turn in, abdominal muscles contract thus rounding the back and depressing the ribcage. Finally, the knees bend and turn inwards, ankles roll in and toes lift and crotch tightens. The body is left in a retracted position, but it happens so fast, milliseconds in fact. Because of this we are not aware of it taking place.
THE RED LIGHT REFLEX
The red light reflex is a major muscular reaction to negative stress in our life. Anything from events like the passing of a loved one to overwhelming anxieties and everyday apprehensions will cause us to withdraw.
When the reflex becomes habituated our ability to move freely is affected because the muscles connected with the red light reflex become chronically contracted. Once held in contraction these muscles will distort posture by rounding the shoulders and hunching the back, given the impression of an old person, as if someone is shrinking. What is actually taking place is a chronic contraction of the flexor (forward bending) muscles of the body.
Because we mainly tighten the muscles at the front of the body during the reflex, another function becomes impaired, our breathing. Fearful / anxious people all have one thing in common, a tight abdominal area. Touch the belly of a "nervous" individual and you will find muscles that are hard. Our abdomens should be soft at standing, sitting or lying, this allows it to lengthen or stretch when we take a full breath in via our diaphragm.
People with tight bellies tend to be shallow breathers, namely the diaphragm does not function freely so they breathe mainly into the ribs / chest area. Shallow breathing or hyperventilation can have the following affects on the heart:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased cardiac output
- Loss of parasympathetic control over cardiac functions and its replacement by sympathetic nervous functions.
RELAXING TIGHT MUSCLES VIA SOMATIC EXERCISES
We now know that repetition of the withdrawal response (red light reflex) causes the flexor muscles of the body to contract. In order to reverse this habituation try practicing these suggested somatic exercises.
Somatic exercises are pandicular in nature. Every healthy vertebral mammal (including humans) can perform pandiculations, which is a slow / controlled contraction and release of muscles. Moving in this way helps to prepare the brain for voluntary control and to give the individual a sense of a muscle / s relaxing. When trying out these somatic exercises try and get a sense of muscles tightening and relaxing upon each repetition.
Lie on your back, arms / legs straight. Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest at the nipple line. Get a sense of where your breath is strongest. See if this changes.
KEY PRINCIPLES TO PRACTICING SOMATIC EXERCISES – MOVE SLOWLY – MOVE WITH AWARENESS – THERE SHOULD BE NO PAIN OR DISCOMFORT WHEN MOVING
- Arch and flatten – Bend your legs, Place one hand on your pubic bone and one hand at the nipple line. Inhale to gently arch lower back (press tailbone down, back tightens) a comfortable amount then exhale to flatten back (abdomen tightens). Relax and sense release of abdomen. Repeat this 5-10 times moving slowly.
- Arch and curl – With legs bent place hands behind head with fingers interlaced (as if prepared to do a sit up). Inhale to arch back a comfortable amount then exhale to flatten back and lift head pointing elbows at knees (abdomen / chest should feel tight). Very slowly lower head and arms and relax, does abdomen / chest release? Repeat 5-10 times moving slowly.
- Elbow to opposite knee – With knees bent place right hand behind head. Inhale to arch low back then exhale to slowly flatten and lift head and left foot pointing right elbow and left knee towards each other with forcing (they do not have to touch, less is more here). Sense front body gets tight. Very slowly lower head, arm and left foot, relax. Does front body release? Repeat 5 times on both sides moving slowly.
- Diaphragm release – With knees bent – Inhale into belly (back may arch, this is fine) and hold your breath. Push the air into chest still holding breath (back should flatten). Keep alternating the air into abdomen and chest until you feel the need to breathe again. Repeat 5 times.
Finish by lying with arms / legs straight. Do you feel broader across your front body? Breathing deeper? Flatter more relaxed back?
Practice these exercises twice day for a week. Notice if they make a difference to your emotional state, back pain or flexibility.