Wouldn’t it be awesome if you had a magic pill that could heal and normalize your essential body systems, like your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems?
In fact, this pill exists! Moreover, the pill is free, and you have had it your entire life! You just never knew how to access it!
Let me start with a couple examples
Instead of his usual 10 p.m. bedtime, Joe goes to bed at 3 a.m. The next morning, he wakes up groggy. Usually, two cups of coffee are enough to jump-start the day and make him functional. But this time, he decides to avoid coffee. Joe has breakfast and feels an impulse to go for a walk. Back at home, he closes his eyes. He listens to his inner body sensations. He feels a yearning to lie down. He follows his feeling and spends 20 restful minutes in bed.
Joe then listens to his inner sensations again and feels an impulse to go for a run. He runs for ten minutes and feels energized. He smiles and feels his entire body waking up bathed in sunshine. An hour later, after following this series of yearnings and impulses, Joe realizes that he feels much better and doesn’t even need coffee to function at his best.
Another example. Susan comes for a session of soma system®. Before it starts, she listens to her inner body sensations and discovers that her upper back is begging her to help it! Susan starts working on her upper back, but instead of the usual pain, she experiences when a massage therapist works on it, she works very slowly to adjust body positions and pressure, so that she feels no pain. A minute later, she starts feeling subtle warmth and vibration in one spot.
Susan observes as the sensation slowly changes, and suddenly she feels vibration emanating from this point, speeding up all the way down to her low back. She starts working on this point in the lower back and unexpectedly feels a rush of tears. She lets herself cry, and feel that she wants a hug. The soma system® therapist comes up and hugs her. This brings her a sense of safety and profound relief. She relaxes and slowly falls asleep, waking up 20 minutes later feeling amazingly refreshed and energized.
I encounter these type of stories every day. soma system® has meticulously designed protocols that lead a client to work on everybody area to experience the sensation-action flow.
Step 1: Discover and observe the ocean of inner body sensations
Step 2: Become aware of action impulses carried by some of these sensations
Step 3: Implement these action impulses in the real world.
Step 4: Go back to step 1 and repeat.
This brings powerful positive changes in both psychological and physical health.
How do these changes happen? What is the mechanism?
The nervous, endocrine, immune, and myofascial systems regulate themselves by sending us action impulses. Ignoring these signals stabilizes the suboptimal state of the body and contributes to gradually pushing it towards disease. However, if we notice these action impulses and change our behavior accordingly, the nervous, endocrine, immune, and myofascial systems undergo positive change.
Let me clarify why this is quite exciting.
These major systems of your body are sending signals to you asking for your help. If you follow these signals and act, you end up helping your physiology! If you ignore these signals, which most people do, then you fail to assist your physiology, and your health starts declining. This is even more important for people with serious chronic conditions since our physiology needs all the support it can get when chronic disorders are present.
This model differs from modern medical practice as its emphasis is on the neuroendocrine system sending direct signals to the brain requesting assistance. In modern medicine, we understand the importance of treating disease related to dysregulation of the endocrine system. But we do this by imposing solutions on the neuroendocrine system via medications, herbs, exercise, yoga, breathing, and many other interventions.
Imposing a solution onto the body is very different from listening to what it is asking for and providing it!
I am not suggesting that there is no need for externally-imposed interventions. What I am suggesting is that fulfilling the neuroendocrine system’s requests should come first. Once you develop this skill, it is always with you, and it’s free!
Here I will present a theory that explains what I and soma system® therapists observe on a daily basis.
Effect of Mild, Moderate, and Traumatic Stress on the Neuroendocrine System
For simplicity, let’s focus on the neuroendocrine system. Your autonomic nervous system consists of three branches, sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric. Roughly speaking, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing your body for activity, while the parasympathetic prepares your body for rest and digestion. These two systems complement each other and act in unison.
We usually think that when you experience a stressful event, the sympathetic system is activated and the parasympathetic is down-regulated (or depressed) to prepare the body for action. Once the stressor is removed, the nervous system spontaneously reverts to its original state: sympathetic activity goes down, and parasympathetic activity goes back up (see fig.1).
Mild acute stress reaction
This is a half-truth . Gellhorn  conducted a series of experiments in which he exposed lab rats to various levels of stress: mild, moderate, and traumatic. When stress was mild and below a certain threshold, both sympathetic and parasympathetic spontaneously returned to the baseline level, as figure 1 demonstrates.
However, if the stimulus strength exceeded a particular intensity or duration, the nervous system did not return to baseline levels. Instead, the rats stayed in a decreased parasympathetic state, with increased sympathetic activity. This is demonstrated in figure2.
Something very different happens when the stressor is too powerful relative to the body’s coping capacity, or if something prevents one from escaping or responding (as may occur when a person is attacked and restrained) [1,3-5]. The body first responds with activation of the sympathetic system and parasympathetic down-regulation (fig.3). If the stressor continues, both sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are activated. Parasympathetic system activation leads to freezing or dissociation. This commonly happens during extreme forms of violence, such as torture or rape.
While in figure 2 the system could not return to its initial state, it still returned to a stable, albeit different, state (compare fig.1 and 2).
Under extreme forms of violence, the system does not return to a stable state. Both branches of the autonomic nervous system continue erratic oscillations between the two extremes. Clinically, this may appear as cycles of a depressive state followed by anxiety and rage.
Traumatic stress response
soma system® protocols for trauma survivors aim to stabilize the system and gradually shift the neuroendocrine system back to a healthier state. In this article, however, we are not going to focus on traumatic stress. Instead, we will focus on the much more common chronic mild and moderate stress.
Mild Stress and soma system®
We all experience mild stressors. It could be going to bed late, as described in the example above, or it could be a conflict at work or home.
When you experience an acute mild level of stress, your receptors detect the change in hormones and immune factors. That is, the sensations we feel result from a change in the concentration of specific endocrine or immune factors in the vicinity of interoceptors. Interoceptors are receptors that inform the brain about the status of body tissues and organs.
The next time you find yourself in a conflict, observe your inner body sensations. You will likely discover a great variety, such as vibrations, rapid pulse, maybe even trembling in your knees. Ask yourself, do I feel any action impulses?
You may feel like you want to get out of the car and walk, or do some push-ups, or jump to release the energy.
If you observe these inner body sensations and follow the action impulses, you will help the neuroendocrine system to move back to equilibrium faster. This is precisely what happens when Joe follows his sensations and the accompanying action impulses after going to bed at 3 a.m. (example above).
Let’s try an analogy.
Bob has a plumbing problem at home. He calls his friend Jack for help. Jack suggests checking the pipes for a blockage, recommends some steps to fix it, and walks Bob through the process. When the neuroendocrine system needs help, it sends a signal to your brain via inner body sensations. This is like Bob picking up the phone and calling Jack.
The sensations generate a desire or an action impulse that aim to change the body’s behavior. This is like Jack telling Bob over the phone what to do to resolve the problem. The body feels the impulse and acts on it. This is like Bob following Jack’s advice and resolving his problem. This behavior change helps the neuroendocrine system to move back to balance.
Unfortunately, most of the time we ignore these signals, and we have been training ourselves since childhood to suppress these signals. Indeed, what do you do when your neck gets tight and painful after 6 hours of sitting at the computer? Most people try to ignore and suppress the pain to continue what they are working on.
If you ignore inner body sensations and the accompanying action impulses, your body stays in the physiologically suboptimal state longer, and gradually this promotes disease development.
Moderate Chronic Stress and soma system®
Our neuroendocrine system always tries to self-regulate by sending us inner body sensations that carry with them action impulses. We tend to ignore these sensations and action impulses, which, when combined with the continuous onslaught of mild stressors, causes the equilibrium point of our sympathetic system to very slowly and continuously shift up and that of the parasympathetic system to shift down (see fig.4).
We also occasionally experience more powerful moderate stressful situations that shift the nervous system into hyperarousal. The combination of mild and moderate stressors causes the equilibrium points of our neuroendocrine system to move over discreet states of ever-increasing hyperarousal, as shown in figure 4.
In reality, it is not just the neuroendocrine system that changes, but the entire body: nervous, endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, and myofascial systems; your posture; the way you present yourself when interacting with other people; the way you smile; the way you breathe; the way you think…
Moreover, you get used to this new equilibrium state. This means that this new state is more “comfortable” and “familiar” and feels much more natural to you than a balanced, healthy state.
Recall from the previous section that it was sufficient to resolve the effects of a mild acute stressor simply by becoming aware of your inner body sensations and allowing yourself to follow the accompanying action impulses. If we look at this process from the perspective of systems theory, it means the system self-corrects without application of any external stimuli! You use one part of the system (mind) to direct your awareness to another part of the system (inner body) and follow resulting observations and action impulses to change your behavior by engaging the musculoskeletal system.
While this approach works for a mild acute stressor, it does not provide complete resolution for consequences of chronic stress. When you have been chronically exposed to a combination of psychological, physical, and emotional stressors, employing your awareness of inner body sensations and accompanying actions impulses is not sufficient to restore equilibrium. This point is critical to understand, especially for those who have been practicing mindfulness and Vipassana meditation.
Let’s look at an example of why merely using your awareness is not sufficient. Perhaps when you get angry, you have a tendency to hike up your shoulders and squeeze your fists. Once upon a time, you got angry, and after the incident was over, you did not even notice the increased tension in your shoulders and wrists.
This tension stayed in your body. Gradually, through a series of stressful situations, this tension becomes internalized in your neuromuscular system.
If you ignore inner body sensations and the accompanying action impulses, your body stays in the physiologically suboptimal state longer, and gradually this promotes disease development
Another time, you were sad. Maybe when you get sad, you tend to slouch and your head moves forward. This subtle slouching becomes natural. Your muscles need to work harder to support that head sticking out in front of your body, so the body starts laying out more tough collagen instead of muscle tissue to support your head.
Adjacent collagen fibers form chemical bonds and your back and neck start feeling hard to the touch. This is a sign that the structure of your soft tissues has changed. Your muscle tissue starts getting tight and painful.
Can you change the structure of soft tissues by directing your awareness to this area and observing sensations? No! This is never going to happen!
Well, I have learned never to say never. So, I will be more accurate and say that I have not seen anyone able to do this. In fact, many meditators and meditating teachers I have worked with had very tight tissues. What does happen in real-life is that meditation can relax tissues which have not yet undergone structural change. This is a common occurrence during meditation.
This model also explains the difficulty with overcoming plateau during mindfulness and Vipassana practice. At first, mindfulness and Vipassana bring excellent results and insights, which is exciting. But after a couple of months or maybe years, you may notice that you have reached a plateau. When this happens, some teachers would encourage you to become an even more dedicated student and invest more time into meditation. For most people, though, doing more of the same thing does not help them overcome the plateau!
The key to overcoming the plateau is understanding that the human body is a complex integrated system. You can overcome the plateau if you start comprehensively balancing multiple aspects of the system instead of just spending more time on practicing mindfulness.
It will help if you work on balancing posture, correcting breathing patterns, resolving muscle tightness and pain, working on personal boundaries, learning skills to resolve conflicts, improving relationships and creating affectionate and positive relationships, and feeling that you are integrated into and contributing to society. All of these factors and many others are inter-connected and need to be changed in parallel.
And this is precisely what soma system® does.
How To Shift the BodyMind to a New Equilibrium Point?
As discussed in the previous section, the most effective way to shift the system back to a more optimal equilibrium state is by affecting as many components of the system as possible. *
For this article, I will discuss sensory channels as a means of affecting the system.
The idea here is to generate inner body sensations by introducing a new sensory input into the system. We can disturb the system with an external stimulus using one of the sensory channels, such as superficial touch, deep touch, a word, an image, or an aroma. This external stimulation evokes inner body sensations. The client observes these sensations, listens for action impulses, and then follows the action impulses to implement them in the real world.
This launches intrinsic self-regulation mechanisms. For example, I can gently touch a client’s shoulder to stimulate superficial mechanoreceptors. A client I recently worked with reported feeling zapping in her liver and feet when I gently touched her left shoulder blade. She observed these sensations, and gradually they cleared up, which contributed to healing the interoceptive system.
Alternatively, I can ask a client to quietly say the word “Kindness” and observe what sensations this word generates. I can also direct this word to the client by saying it out loud myself, and once again ask the client to observe any inner body sensations and subsequent action impulses. When I work on myself, I can use a self-bodywork tool to stimulate receptors housed within layers of myofascial tissue to launch new inner body sensations.
All the “therapeutic stressors” described above act similarly to a low-level stressor. They shift the entire system slightly out of its current equilibrium point by introducing a sensory signal into the system. Interoceptive receptors sense this change and generate sensations. The client starts observing the flow of sensations. At some point, he may notice an action impulse that asks him to do something. This action could be a deep inhalation, crying, standing up, drinking water, or even telling me that he feels that he wants to stop working and do something else! These actions lead to new inner body sensations, which the client observes, and so on.
This is what I call the magic of self-regulation, which can lead to shifting the entire neuroendocrine system back towards a healthier point and resolving many physical and psychological problems. This is also a gentle process that gradually integrates the person into one whole.
Notice the significant difference of this approach from mindfulness or Vipassana. Vipassana involves self-observation of the system without any stimulation from the outside: I observe my inner body sensations without any regards to what is going on in the outside world, I try to place myself in a vacuum and observe my inner body sensations. soma system® also recognizes the high value of observing inner body sensations in a vacuum. This is a great tool, but it is just one of many in the soma system® toolbox.
soma system® goes beyond self-observation in a vacuum and recognizes that we do not live in a vacuum! We live in a vibrant society. We interact with our environment all the time, through words, images, tastes, and other sensory channels. Thus, soma system® includes another useful tool in the toolbox by using the environment to introduce a disturbance into the system via one of the sensory channels and letting the system evolve to a new equilibrium point.
This is just one tool. A useful tool, but one of many soma system® tools.
NeuroEndocrine Self-Regulation and Sense of Meaning
The process described above has many wonderful and magical consequences. One of the best results, I think, from bringing the body’s yearnings to life is having a deep sense of meaning.
Unlike plants, we belong to the type of species that move. We move to satisfy our body’s needs to obtain food and water. Motivation to fulfill our needs and achieve goals is evolutionary embedded within us . When we stop satisfying the needs of the body and the mind, whether it be the need for food and water or yearning for an affectionate human connection or self-realization, we start losing the sense of meaning. And this is a slow but sure path to disappointments and depression.
Scientists conceptualize the spirit as something that incorporates our needs, yearnings, and innermost dreams . soma system® therapists start working with clients from the foundational aspect of the human being: to sense our needs, yearnings, and dreams, and to act to fulfill them in real life. In this way, soma system® is a spiritual practice and lays out a foundation for other spiritual practices. This foundation is grounded in the real physical experience, rather than a mental concept.
When the step of building a solid physical foundation for spirituality is skipped, there is a great danger that “spirituality” can be transformed into a set of mental dogmas. As we observe in the modern world, this is the path to radical religious and political extremism. There are many ways out of the cycle of political and religious agendas becoming more extreme and fanatical. One way is by developing the skills discussed in this article.
Observing one’s inner body sensations and acting on the action impulses are simple skills that can dramatically improve your quality and enjoyment of life. It does take time and careful supervision by a trained therapist to learn and internalize these skills, but it is totally worth it!
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