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IS YOUR POSTURE CAUSING ANXIETY & DEPRESSION? - Explaining the Somatic Red Light Reflex

In our modern industrialized societies, we rarely face physical threats or attacks on a regular basis. However, our bodies still possess a primordial response called the Red Light Reflex, also known as the withdrawal response, which has helped our ancestors survive throughout evolution. This reflex is a series of automatic physical reactions that occur when we sense danger, protecting our bodies from attack.

Woman in the somatic red light reflex, withdrawl or startle response.
The red light reflex causes a forward curving of the spine, changing the angle of the rib cage and pelvis, drawing the rib cage and pelvis together, and resulting in a forward position of the head and shoulders. This curved spine and constant workload on the back muscles can lead to back pain.

The Red Light Reflex manifests in various ways, including the contraction of our jaw, the lifting of our shoulders, the forward movement of our head, the contraction of our eyes and brow, the bending of our elbows, the inward rotation of our arms, the contraction of our abdominals, the tightening of our inner thigh muscles and hamstrings, and the rolling inward of our knees and ankles. These actions pull our extremities inward and bring us into a fetal position, shielding the most vulnerable parts of our body.

While the Red Light Reflex has been crucial for our survival, it poses challenges for those of us living in modern societies where physical threats are less common. Instead of facing external dangers, we encounter chronic psychological stressors such as work demands, family responsibilities, financial pressures, and social expectations. Our perception of these stressors as life-threatening triggers the activation of the withdrawal response, leading to a constant contraction of our abdominal muscles and a posture associated with aging.

When this rounded posture becomes habitual, we experience various physiological dysfunctions, including back and neck pain, shallow breathing, high blood pressure, and digestive issues. Moshe Feldenkrais warned that if the reflex reaction becomes too ingrained, it could be detrimental to our species. It's clear that the withdrawal response, which once served as a vital survival mechanism, is no longer doing us any favors in our modern lives.

Woman in the Startle or Red Light Reflex Somatics
The Red Light Reflex also affects breathing. The habitually contracted intercostal muscles, which are located between each of the ribs, reduce the ability to breathe deeply and expand the lungs. This can result in shallow breathing, leading to increased fatigue, low-level anxiety, and insufficient oxygen intake.

To better understand and address the impact of the Red Light Reflex, it was given the name by Thomas Hanna. The term "Red Light" signifies stopping and avoiding confrontation, which reflects the instinctive nature of the withdrawal response. Teachers in Somatics can use both the terms Red Light Reflex and withdrawal response interchangeably to describe the tightening of the muscles in the front of the body for self-protection.

Those exhibiting the Red Light Reflex posture typically have their heads forward, their jaws clenched shut, their shoulders rounded forward with a collapsed chest, their arms rotated inward, their elbows bent, their trunk bent forward, their pelvis tucked under, their hips rotated inward, their knees bent, and their knees and ankles rolled inward. However, people in this posture often attempt to balance the weight of their body in some way, such as pulling their head backward, leading to tense neck muscles and cervical disc problems. Additionally, those with Red Light Posture often experience back pain due to the increased workload on their back muscles to maintain an upright posture.

Various muscles play a significant role in the Red Light Reflex. The muscles that flex the spine, flex the cervical spine, elevate the mandible (jaw), rotate the arms inward, flex the elbows, flex the hips, flex the knees, and rotate the hips and knees inward are all involved in this reflex response. Understanding the anatomy of the Red Light Reflex helps us tailor our approach to releasing the tension and correcting the posture associated with it.

Man in the Red Light Reflex, Withdrawl or Startle Response
The tightness in the belly, chest, and frontal neck muscles also causes the head and shoulders to be drawn forward, creating a rounded back and stooped posture. This forward and shrugged position of the shoulders can cause neck and shoulder pain, limit the ability to turn the head or raise the arms overhead, and compress the nerves and blood vessels that innervate the shoulders and arms.

Common traits, lifestyles, or physical training often contribute to the development of Red Light Posture. These include stress, fatigue, overwork, shyness, lack of confidence, fear, sadness, negativity, long hours spent on the computer or driving. Participating in activities like gymnastics, swimming, or weightlifting, can result in chronic contraction of the abdomen and chest muscles and increase likelihood of the Red Light Reflex.

Red Light Posture can lead to various conditions, including back and shoulder tightness and pain, thoracic outlet syndrome, neck tightness and pain, cervical disc problems, headaches, temporomandibular joint disorders, bruxism, hyperkyphosis, shallow breathing, high blood pressure, digestive problems, constipation, frequent urination, impotence, hip, knee, and ankle pain, tight hamstrings, and bunions. The posture has been linked to disorders like anxiety, depression and fear.

Recognizing the impact of the Red Light Reflex on our posture and health is the first step in addressing and correcting these imbalances. By incorporating somatic movement techniques, we can release the tension caused by the withdrawal response and restore a more balanced and functional posture. Understanding the role of the Red Light Reflex and its effects empowers us to take control of our physical well-being in our modern, stress-filled lives.


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