Doctors who study pain have hypothesized that there is a link between stress and chronic pain. Recurring pain can cause a sustained stress response, which in turn contributes to the pain, which in turn creates more stress, and so on.
A new study has found “that basal levels of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone in humans) were higher in chronic back pain patients than in healthy individuals….[these] findings are in accordance with the emerging perspective that the limbic system involved in fear, learning, and motivation would be the neural networks mainly impacted by recurring pain.” In other words, “Stress management might be a new avenue of dealing with chronic pain sufferers.”
Perhaps this is why so many chronic pain sufferers find relief by studying the Alexander Technique.
Here’s why: One of the things a student explores in an Alexander Technique lesson is their stress response (otherwise known as fight-or-flight, or the fight/flight/freeze response). Ever heard of it? Most people have somewhere in high school biology or on Jeopardy or read an article about it sometime in their lives. You probably see and experience the fight/flight/freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it. Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What happens? They sense you, tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up fright/flight/freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.
Humans also experience this same response. Our unique problem as a species is that we don’t get to fight or fly when fight-or-flight is triggered. Instead, we hunker in, pulling our heavy heads down onto the delicate column of our spines and stay there. Next time you find yourself late for an important appointment, fighting with a loved one, or asked to give a speech at an event, notice what happens to your neck and back (are you putting yourself into a stress response trying to get this article read quickly before getting back to work?)
In an Alexander Technique session, you and your teacher will examine your head/neck/back relationship and see what unique patterns of tension and stress you are maintaining. They are probably patterns that up till this point have been unconscious. Once these habitual patterns are brought into awareness, your teacher will help you work out a way for you to undo them. In other words, you’ll re-train your brain to be more conscious of your unconstructive habits – whether they are postural, mental, or emotional – or all three.
So in a sense, when you take an Alexander Technique lesson, you are attacking pain from two angles – you are learning to observe your stress response while simultaneously learning to release muscle tension and experience new ways to delicately release back into your natural length.
Have you found yourself in a pain loop? Do you fear triggering an episode, or find you spend time worrying over your pain? Leave a comment. Then see if the Alexander Technique is right for you.
To find a teacher in the US or Canada, visit: alexandertechnique.com/teacher/northamerica/
For more on the study mentioned above, click here.
For a great 5 minute segment on pain and the brain, click here: