What do you do when a personal crisis hits? Something that stops you in your tracks and makes you sit up and listen.
Two weeks ago my back suddenly ‘went’. It was agony off the scale – a deep lower back pain that literally floored me – I couldn’t stand or walk. Luckily I know why back pain occurs and I also know my body. I definitely wasn’t expecting it, but I could piece together the puzzle and figure out what was going on.
Doctors and chiropractors consider back pain to be a structural problem. But if you haven’t broken anything, and you don’t have a disease it’s probably not structural. In fact, most back pain is functional in nature. Muscles become overly tight through repetitive actions and when they stay tight they restrict movement. An issue like mine is not ‘sudden’. It comes from deeply habituated patterns of dysfunctional movement due to accidents and injury. It has presence in more than just the lower back, where the pain shows up.
“Co-contraction” of muscles is often at the root cause of pain and compression in the spine. This is when the brain commands opposing muscles around a joint contract simultaneously. It’s useful for stability, like when doing certain yoga poses, for example. The muscles of the front and back of the body co-contract as a sort of agreement to keep you up. But imagine what happens when the muscles get stuck in co-contraction. It’s a like a tug of war between one muscle and it’s opposing partner. The result is restricted movement. If you then over-do it by pushing yourself too hard, or doing something new which your body is not used to (I did both!), you may have problem.
Hanna Somatics addresses patterns of co-contraction. Slow, gentle somatic movements teach your brain to contract one set of muscles in a particular movement pattern, and release the opposing set. For example, when the muscles of the back contract and shorten, the muscles of the front learn to release and lengthen. A daily practice reminds the brain to engage muscles needed for a particular movement and ‘switch off’ muscles that are not needed.
If you find yourself in a pain crisis (back/hip/knee/shoulder/neck), here are my biggest takeways:
1. Rest. First and foremost, just rest. Yes, it can be hard, especially when there is so much to do. But when you actually properly rest, it’s humbling. Life goes on. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on why it happened.
2. Acceptance. The ups and downs of everything we endure in life are part and parcel of living in this world. How we react becomes our reality. Being mindful that we are not ultimately in control and that problems come and go is the best insight in any crisis.
3. Somatic Movement. When the acute pain subsides, getting back to specific, gentle movement helps release tight muscles to realign the body and speed up the healing process. It may bring you a step forward in your somatic journey and uncover something that you hadn’t been aware of before.
4. Patience. My favourite reminder is that the somatic process is ongoing. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a ‘quick fix’. Keep enquiring and moving and you will continue to improve.
When you commit to a somatic practice, you’ll be surprised at what you can do. Here I am two weeks later skiing without pain in the Tatra Mountains. I doubt I could have done this without somatics!