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by Mary Ann Gray Voorhies

Following are the words of Thomas Hanna, quoted directly from his book Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health. No one can explain the red light reflex better than Hanna himself.

The abdominal muscles and the withdrawal response

“It is surprising that a single lower-brain reflex could be the cause of so many of the body changes associated with aging. It is also enlightening, because it helps us toward both understanding and overcoming the myth of aging,

“For many decades neurobiologists have been fascinated with this human reflex because it also occurs throughout the entire animal kingdom. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘startle response;” and other times it is referred to as the ‘escape response” because it aids the animal in avoiding or evading a threat. It is a primitive brain reflex of survival. Its action in the central nervous system is usually mediated by ‘giant nerve fibers” large enough to allow the nerve impulse to travel more quickly. It is a ‘rapid motor act” that is built into the circuitry of even very simple organisms, helping them to survive by rapidly withdrawing them from danger.

“When you touch a sea anemone, its circle of small tentacles simply retracts, drawing back from the threatening stimulus. Fish respond with fast getaways, crayfish with a sudden tailflip response.

“Even in complex animals like humans, the reflex is quick and reflective. If a woman walking down the street hears the sudden explosion of a car backfiring, this is what happens: Within 14 milliseconds the muscles of her jaw begin to contract; this is immediately followed about twenty milliseconds later by a contraction of her eyes and brow but, before her eyes have squeezed shut, her shoulder and neck muscles (the trapezius) have received a neural impulse at 25 milliseconds to contract, raising her shoulders and bringing her head forward. At 60 milliseconds, her elbows bend, and then her palms begin to turn downward. These descending neural impulses continue by contracting the abdominal muscle, which brings her trunk forward, simultaneously pulling down her ribcage and stopping her breathing. And, immediately after that, her knees bend and point inward, while her ankles roll her feet inward. The muscles of the crotch tighten, and the toes lift upward. This sums up the red light reflex — the body’s withdrawal from danger. The body is flexed and crouched, almost as if to fall into a fetal posture …

“As red light reflex rapidly courses downward from head to legs it causes contractions that can cause crows feed, wrinkled brow, a dowager’s hump and projected head, slumping shoulders, a flat chest, a stooped trunk, a lack of breath, and aching knees. Because all of these are body changes associated with aging it is surprising that they could be caused by a single, lower brain reflex.”

Malfunctions caused by the withdrawal response

The red light reflex is responsible for other maladies within the human body, as well. Hanna goes on to address those:

“The red light reflex is a response to stressful events. It’s a basic neuromuscular response to worry and negative stressors … Thus, it is not age that causes these bodily changes. It is distress. It is not age that causes a stooped posture and shallow breathing. It is accumulated response to negative stress.”

“…. As we come to understand how the muscular contractions of the red light reflex cause bodily malfunctions, we require a different viewpoint on the common “maladies” of old age. Not only does the abdominal contraction cause shallow breathing. It causes other maladies, as well. The pressure on the viscera affects all visceral functions.

“For example, when liquid pressure rises in the bladder, the urethra automatically contracts, giving us the urgent sense of needing to urinate. But when the abdominal muscle becomes contracted, it squeezes the bladder raising its internal pressure, giving the false sense of a full bladder. Frequent urination is a common complaint in older humans. It is usually the result of an habituated red light reflex. This same abdominal contraction affects digestion and elimination. Constipation and a chronically contracted stomach muscle often go together ….

“The red light reflex also causes contractions in the perineal muscles. This chronic tightening around the blood vessels leading to the penis and clitoris prevents full blood flow and full innervation, thus preventing tumenince. Impotence is common among persons chronically contracted in the abdominal area. The problem would seem to be a traditional psychological one, but it is not. It is more often a reflexive muscular problem in which muscular control has been lost. Sensory-motor amnesia commonly underlies chronic impotence and is generally seen in older people. But it is a habit, not a degeneration of ‘old age.’ And habits can be broken.”

Effects of the withdrawal response on breathing and heart function

“As noted earlier, the attention given to the effects of stress has been immense. But it has failed to focus on the role played by the neuromuscular system. The withdrawal response is a major muscular reaction to negative stress, and a fundamental feature of this reaction is the depression of breathing. Cardiovascular disease is a paramount health problem in contemporary society. So it is extraordinary that in the research on stress and heart function, there’s almost no attention paid to breathing … this is profoundly disappointing.

“Venous blood entering the right chambers of the hearth flows directly through the filtering and operating tissues of the lungs before entering the heart’s chambers … The effects of respiration on heart function are obvious. One cannot even cough, sigh, gasp or hold one’s breath without causing an immediate change in coronary activities.

“People who do NOT fall under the sway of the red light reflex have a relatively uninhibited abdominal muscle. They are capable of diaphragmatic breathing with the belly expanding to the front and sides during inhalation. This type of deep breathing has the following effects of cardiac function:

1.)   decreased heart rate;

2.)   decreased cardiac output;

3.)   reduced peripheral systolic blood pressure;

4.)   regulation of the cardiovascular system by parasympathetic functions of the autonomic nervous system;

5.)   regulation of the heartbeat by the ebb and flow of respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

“Number five is the most universally recognized effect of respiration on cardiovascular function. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia refers to the way in which heart rate varies with the phase of respiration. The heart rate accelerates during the inspiratory phase, then decelerates during the expiratory phase. This alternation is a sign of how the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system dominates the stressed sympathetic branch, which governs the fight or flight response.

“The presence of respiratory sinus arrhythmia is a sign of coronary health; it’s absence is clinical evidence of a higher probability of coronary disease … The two medical researchers who have explored these matters in the most thorough manner are Defares and Grossman.

“A research study was carried out with 153 heart attack patients in the coronary care unit of a Minneapolis-St. Paul hospital. These patients were examined to determine whether they were abdominal diaphragmatic breathers or thoracic breathers, whose tight abdominal muscles forced them into the labored, chest-lifting characteristic of shallow breathers. The results of the survey were devastatingly clear: EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE 153 PATIENTS EXAMINED WERE THORACIC BREATHERS!

“Defares and Grossman’s resume of the scientific literature touching upon this crucial topic concludes with this sentence: ‘A breathing therapy oriented toward slowing down the respiratory pattern and increasing the depth of respiration might prove an effective means of treatment. It is possible to alter the breathing pattern in a relatively stable manner. Such therapies might simultaneously reduce both psychological and coronary risk.

“The somatic exercises devised to counteract the effects of the red light reflex are ‘just such therapies’ that enable us to remember what it feels like not to be anxious, and to breathe once again like healthy human beings are meant to breathe.”

Mary Ann VoorhiesThose are Hanna’s concluding words for us today. I would like to point out that the so-called effects of aging and poor posture can be combated by practicing and learning not only the slow movement exercises Hanna invented but also by working with a certified somatic educator to produce real physical changes more quickly and easily. We now have the power to change our own bodies for the better by changing our brains. What a wonderful discovery for the human race Hanna made, bringing about the potential for dramatic change in health care.

In fact, Hanna said, “As far as healthcare is concerned we have landed on a new continent.”

Mary Ann Gray Voorhies is a certified clinical somatic educator. Find her on the Web at

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