Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Red & Green Light Reflex: Or the Sum of Neuromuscular Stress, as the Source of Stiffness, Chronic Pain, Chronic Fatigue & Chronic High Blood Pressure

Everybody knows that modern city living, office routines and too much sitting on couches and chairs, at home and behind the steering wheel, are anything but a healthy way to be.  The human body wasn’t meant to be so static or frozen in one spot as modern life often demands of us.  By virtue of the way it evolved, the body was and still is made to be mobile: to move and express itself through movement.  Therefore, lack of movement, lack of relaxation, lack of joy, lack of communicating in a friendly way with others while instead communicating impersonally mostly with and through computers, all of these factors produce opposing muscular patterns that immobilize the body even further. 

Most often these patterns evolve over time through repetition; or they can arise through trauma from physical or emotional injuries.  Independent of the causes, however, painkillers and most often, even surgeries are of little help.  They cannot take care of the problem.  Only two things can help: get up from your couch and get moving and/or receive some form of skilled bodywork that will set the process of recovery in motion and accompany it for a while.  Even then, bodywork in itself is not the cure but only the beginning of it.  The cure is in getting the body to move.

But what are these destructive muscular patterns that need releasing?  Body psychology characterizes them as ‘green light’, ‘red light’ and ‘trauma reflex’, a term coined by Thomas Hanna PhD.

According to Hanna, “The green light reflex is the reflex involved in forward movement. All the large muscles of the back contract to move your forward in walking, running and standing. The back muscles stay overly-contracted, pulling the back into an exaggerated arch.  You could think of this reflex as an ‘arching reflex,’ like a soldier at attention. When running for the train, sitting at the computer for many hours, picking up a child, or standing all day long, these ‘green light’ muscles are working to help you ‘get the job done.’ If this reflexive response to stress becomes habituated, conditions such as herniated disks, neck pain, shoulder pain, and sciatica can develop.”

As to the red light reflex Hanna says, “More commonly known as the ‘startle response,’ it involves the all the muscles on the front of the body, which tighten to pull you forward. This ‘slumping reflex’ presents itself with rounded shoulders, depressed chest and the head thrust forward.  It is a protective reflex found in all vertebrate animals and is a response to fear, anxiety, prolonged distress or negativity. A loud noise, unexpected sound or emotional trauma (or long hours hunched over the computer) can cause the muscles of the front of the body to contract suddenly as the body pulls inward in a slumping posture. An habituated red light reflex can lead to chronic neck pain, jaw pain (as with TMJ), a ‘widow’s hump,’ hip pain, mid-back pain and shallow breathing. The inability to breathe deeply deprives your brain, blood and muscles of the oxygen they need to function properly. This in turn can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep problems and exacerbate allergies.”

Finally, “The trauma reflex occurs involuntarily in response to accidents and injuries and the need to avoid further pain as one compensates due to an injury. This reflex involves the muscles of the trunk rotators, which, when contracted, ‘hike’ the hip on one side and twist the spine slightly.  Examples of this would be the repetitive task of holding a young child on one’s hip, a sudden fall of any kind, limping on one side in response to a twisted ankle on the other side, falling on one’s tailbone in a fall or suffering from appendicitis. This reflex presents with side bending and rotations in the pelvis/trunk/shoulder/head. This postural compensation may be slight, or very noticeable, but its effects can be devastating. In many cases scoliosis is an example of an habituated trauma reflex, creating a curve and tilting in the spine and trunk.”

This is the sum of neuromuscular stress, a state of muscular immobility caused by the gradual build-up of chronically opposing contractions.  The powerful contraction of the spinal muscles in the green light reflex continues its pulling of the lower back and neck into a curve.  But the equally powerful pull of the abdominal and shoulder contractions in the red light tilts the entire trunk forward, rounding the back and the shoulders and projecting the head forward.  The diagrams in this post illustrate these opposing contractions, which are often observed in the body postures of people living according to the dictates of today’s stress ridden culture.   

When prolonged, this neuromuscular stress often leads to the following six typical pathologies.

1.      Stiff and limited movement: As the Red or Green light reflexes close in on each other, the human skeleton becomes imprisoned within its own musculature.

2.      Chronic pain: Chronic (long-term) muscular contraction causes chronic pain.  The glycogen, which is stored within the muscle for the energy of contraction, is constantly being burned up.  The combustion of glycogen creates contraction, and the glycogen is then turned into lactic acid, and the more acid there is, the muscles sensory cells become irritated

3.      Chronic fatigue: The two overlapping contractions of the two reflexes cause an enormous expenditure of energy.

4.      Chronic shallow breathing: Shortened rectus abdominus and contracted diaphragm are immobilizing the chest.  When O2 intake is down the result is depression, listlessness and loss of mental alertness and flexibility.

5.      A negative self-image: When the above 4 conditions are predominant in any individual low self-esteem naturally ensues.

6.      Chronic high blood pressure: When the red light reflex restricts breathing and therefore triggers hyperventilation, it also suppresses the normal variable heart rhythm and sinus arrhythmia.  This means that two things occur: a) Dominance of the sympathetic nervous system over cardiovascular functions, which causes the smooth muscle walls of the vascular canals to contract; and b) the up-and-down variation of blood pressure no longer occurs so that the vascular walls are not kept supple, and therefore adaptable to blood pressure changes.  When we reflect on the collision of the Red and Green light reflexes in the senile posture and their statically opposing contractions, we suddenly realize the potential fatality of the senile posture.  The body’s two major muscle groups are opposing one another involuntarily in a static, isometric contraction – a dark vise that causes chronically high blood pressure.

Many medical professional see these problems as structural in nature, when in fact they are functional.  Improved function of the muscles improves the structure, or posture.  Therefore, in practice, these problems need to be resolved through a process of cultivating awareness of the ‘amnesic’ muscles first, then retraining the brain to retrain the muscles to release and relax back to a new length. This process results in better balance, coordination and improved overall functioning of the musculoskeletal system. Ultimately one becomes more self-reliant.

According to my own experience, a combination of bodywork coupled with NadiPrana (Tibetan yoga exercises) and the simple beginners Tai Chi movements that I learned for better posture in my profession did do the trick.  They changed my posture not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well,” says Gagori Mitra-Gupta.  Whereas Thomas Hanna developed his own system of simple movements, called Hanna Somatic Education.

For those who want to find out more about the subject, go to:

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