Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chronic Tension Patterns

At the core of the rationale for introducing counseling skills with massage training is the belief that chronic tension patters are actually a physiological expression of an individual’s psychological and emotional belief system. The process of habitual muscular co-contraction is almost always associated with a withdrawal of awareness to avoid either physical or emotional pain. In either case this is a psychological process.

If I injure my shoulder I may contract all the muscles that cross the shoulder joint to stabilize the joint in such a way as to protect me from further injury, but the incentive for this contraction is to avoid pain associated with it the injury. As the contraction pattern becomes habitual, the muscle tissue changes in such a way as to support the contraction pattern reflexively. There is no need to think about the contraction in order to maintain it. I withdraw my awareness by engaging in habitual contraction and yet the cortical information I get from the area is about contracting muscles to avoid pain. As the injury heals, real pain is replaced by imaginary pain and I begin to behave in ways that support my belief in the imagination. When I reinjure the shoulder because of a decreased mobility in the joint I think it’s the original pain an it reinforces the belief in the need for contraction. In this way what is really a fluid and changing process becomes static and solid.

The same process applies to emotional pain. In fact, research would suggest that it is impossible to experience an emotional state without a corresponding muscular co contraction pattern. The co-contraction then prepares me to respond to stimuli that tend to reinforce the emotional state, which then reinforces the co-contraction that prepares me to respond to similar stimuli and son. These tensional patterns (that result in characteristic lack of coordination and habitual posture) are actually self maintaining physical experience of emotional and psychological experience that represent a person’s overall belief system about who they are in relation to the world they live in. How a person stands of moves is not only determined by a person’s experience of the world; to a large degree it actually determines the experience.

When I talk about massage or bodywork as a vehicle for awareness then, I mean that on several different levels. First I can become aware through touch or movement that tension or dysfunction exists. Someone touches me and my habitual, below the level of awareness, Then is contrasted. Then I can learn to let go, to recognize, to not do something that I was already doing and perhaps do something differently. Next comes the pervasive impulse to reinstate the original pattern. I may learn to let go again and again but as long as I cling to the belief around which the pattern is organized, I will reinstate the pattern.

At this point the psychologically oriented body workers might say that if you change the way a person stands or moves in the world, you will change their experience of the world. Body centered psychologists might say that by changing the belief system you change the way a person stands. I’m interested in working with the whole person right from the start, but that’s not where I have problems with these partial approaches. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything but work with the whole person. The problem is that most partial approaches are essentially violent. The body worker is going to change my body and the psychologist is going to change my mind. In either case, somebody else is going to make me over in their mold, to conform me to their standard. This is the point where, in my experience, most systems of education break down.

Belief systems associated with habitual contraction patterns are for the most part scary by nature. The process involves a withdrawal of awareness in an effort to avoid pain. There is a quality of defensiveness. However well-intentioned the system or approach, to the extent that it is imposed on another human being, it is essentially violent and in the long-run counter productive. Rather that, in the field of awareness and education, we provide a safe space for our clients to inquire into the psychological and emotional underpinnings of chronic tension and make whatever choices they need to at whatever times they need to make them.


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