Basic principles of the AEQ method®
Through many years of practice, I have noticed that 80 to 90% of chronic pain is caused by sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). This is a condition in which the sensory-motor neurons of the cerebral cortex lose part of their ability to sense and control skeletal muscles.
Sensory-motor amnesia doesn’t arise either as an organic lesion in the cerebral cortex or as visible damage to the musculoskeletal system. It occurs as a functional deficit when the ability of the cerebral cortex to control skeletal muscle contractions is transferred to subcortical sensory-motor feedback loops. These chronically command an increase in muscle tone above the realistically necessary level in the past programmed level in 10%, 30%, and 60% tone. At the same time, the cerebral cortex loses the ability to relax these muscle groups, which are in a state of SMA, in a corresponding proportion. We can consciously raise the tone of such muscle groups, but we cannot relax them – lower the tone below the level determined by the subcortical sensory feedback loop. We are not directly aware of this, although we feel the consequences of the increased average tone.
As the central nervous system loses its ability to relax muscle tone, chronically tense muscles will firstly become more painful, secondly, weak from fatigue caused by constant activation and loss of tone pulsation and thirdly, they will cause overload, damage, and wear and tear on body structures due to the loss the ability to synergistically coordinate these muscles with whole body movements. Furthermore, the consequences of this chronic muscle tension are increased consumption of body energy, thereby reducing the efficiency of the overall functioning; improper posture and weight distribution that is not coordinated with the body structure are created, which will cause secondary pain due to asymmetries. This pain is often mistaken for arthritis, bursitis, sciatica, hernia, etc.
The mentioned symptoms of changes in body functions, which result from SMA in the neuromuscular system, are often misdiagnosed in medicine and are treated with mechanical or chemical interventions in the local musculoskeletal areas where the problem is located. I notice that local intervention has no lasting effect if the functional problem of the neuromuscular system is treated as if it were a structural problem of the body. The result is chronic pathology and the belief that the condition is incurable, so in the long term, there is nothing left but the use of painkillers. These temporarily mask the symptoms, but the person does not change their attitude toward the body. Anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-inflammatory therapies reduce severe inflammation caused by long-term increased tone, but due to the nature of SMA, they cannot eliminate the causes of inflammation. Therefore, it is difficult for the doctor and the patient to determine the actual cause.
Eventually, the condition worsens, and problems, chronic pain, and its consequences are blamed on aging. Medical researchers are aware of this lack of success in diagnosis and treatment and refer to such conditions as chronic, idiopathic, or syndromes. At the same time, they acknowledge that our understanding of the pathology of these regional musculoskeletal diseases, such as back pain, neck pain, or shoulder pain, is deficient, shallow, and requires more clinical research. The problem is even more pressing when we connect it to the fact that most patients are suffering from musculoskeletal diseases.
SMA can be changed and thus eliminated. We can do so consciously by “educating” the sensory-motor cortex. This way, we renew or supplement our consciousness with patterns and responses that we left in the past to be managed and implemented from the subconscious, thus creating chronic patterns that make life difficult for us. Refreshing this knowledge helps us successfully face our chronic pain.
We can change the state of SMA and thereby eliminate it. This can only be done consciously by ‘training’ the sensory-motor part of the neocortex through body movements. This way, we renew or supplement our consciousness with patterns and responses that we left in the past to be managed and implemented from the subconscious, thus creating chronic patterns that make life difficult for us. Restoring or adding to this knowledge helps us successfully deal with chronic pain.
SMA can develop in many different ways, in processes that usually turn natural body reflexes into chronic illnesses: (1) trauma reflex, (2) startle reflex, (3) Landau response, (4) freeze reflex. Less common causes of SMA are atrophies caused by the disuse of muscles (a person in a wheelchair) and long-term misuse of muscles due to habit or necessity (like a dentist’s hump due to a specific posture during work).
Trauma reflex protects the muscles and other bodily structures from injury or growth. This is a pain avoidance reflex. This reflex causes a momentary change in your usual movement patterns. It activates a stronger increase in muscle tone, affecting part of the cortex. This causes one’s posture, attitude towards gravity, and movement to change. When one side of the chest receives a blow, the affected muscles immediately contract, causing natural immobilization. After hernia surgery, for example, the abdominal muscles on the side that suffered from the hernia will remain in constantly increased tone. If the left leg is broken or the left knee is in long-term pain, the person will avoid symmetrical use of the left leg and will therefore lean to the right side and bear more weight on it. This will cause them to maintain asymmetrical posture and movement even after the injury has healed.
The head or body tilting to one side, the height difference between shoulders, one eye more open than the other, limping or uneven stride length, as well as the amplitude of hand movements when walking, are recognizable signs of the trauma reflex. Usually, a person, burdened by the trauma reflex, hurts their arm or leg or suffers a strong blow to the side of the torso. This is why it’s easier for them to turn to one side than the other, and when they walk, each foot produces a different sound (one is louder, the other quieter). In a more severe case of this reflex, a person stops facing the person they’re conversing with. In the same way, the trauma reflex also occurs with stronger emotional traumas, where the trauma reflex often aligns with the startle reflex or the Landau response and twists the person into a posture of despair or the posture of a soldier in readiness.
Startle reflex (red light reflex) occurs as a stress response to threats, the need to flee, or dangerous situations that may be real or imagined. If the threat that triggers the startle reflex occurs often enough and strongly enough, then the acute muscle tensions of the reflex will turn into chronic ones. The signs are raised shoulders, a flat, depressed chest, tense thigh muscles, and painful knees and crotch. In severe cases, which are usually the result of emotional or sexual abuse or long-term severe pain (skin transplant, ruptured appendix, …), chronically tense elbows, wrists, neck, jaw, knees, and ankle.
Anxiety, fear, depression, caution, inconspicuousness, modesty, being overly critical towards yourself and others, a lack of self-confidence, an aversion towards making decisions, claustrophobia, a preference towards sitting, and chronic fatigue are the typical characteristics of people with excessive subconscious activation of the red light reflex. They tend to see problems as bigger than they really are, so they usually overthink, hesitate, and offload decisions and actions. Such a person is quiet or excessively loud, his head is leaning slightly forward, his chest is compressed, and his breathing is shallow and fast. They feel anxiety and fear even when there is nothing to fear, they are pale and without energy. They take short steps when walking, they look tired, slow, and cautious. Over the years, their body becomes hunchbacked. An indirect effect of the chronically activated startle reflex is shallow breathing, which serves to reduce the intensity of emotions and sensations and affects the functions of the heart and the central nervous system – the latter creates a chronic dominance of the sympathetic nervous state, which often turns into the freeze reflex.
Landau response (green light reflex) is the reflex of excitement that contracts the posterior muscle group that enables upright posture, causing the back to straighten in readiness for forward movement. This response occurs in situations where the action is required on the part of a person, such as an event where someone knocks on the door, our phone rings, we are in a hurry to get home, or someone responds to our request; there are far too many of these actions in modern society to be able to maintain conscious control over them and maintain an adequate ability to relax the posterior muscle groups when the actions are not necessary and when we are in a situation where there would be a realistic parasympathetic state. The constant repetition of these situations and the Landau response make this muscle tension chronic.
In the business world, more than 80% of people over the age of 40 suffer from back pain.
They have chronically tense back muscles, from their thumb to their atlas, skull, and upper jaw. A large number of decisions, an exaggerated sense of responsibility, and a beehive-like state inside their head are typical characteristics of people who have an activated green light reflex. They are usually in a hurry, work and make decisions for others, even when they don’t need to. They feel a strong sense of guilt if they have nothing to do. The subconscious permanently activated reflex forces them into constant action. As they reach age 35 and above, they become increasingly tired. Repeated boredom is also a typical sign of the green light reflex. They misidentify this as a lack of fitness and strength. They add training to an already stressful lifestyle, which they usually lose track of. They use sports and recreation to combat everyday stress due to work or family. They walk quickly, with short steps, leaning forward, with their hips pushed back, and their thoughts always elsewhere.
The freeze response is caused by the simultaneous activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic states of the autonomic nervous system. It occurs when the limbic system perceives that neither flight nor fight is the appropriate response and that the danger of death is real. A victim of trauma and the resulting freeze reflex perceives reality differently. The feeling of pain decreases, time slows down, and the person acts numb.
Due to the protection of the organism’s center, the consciousness develops a numbing of its surface by increasing its tone. Freud wrote that the outer part then ceases to have the structure characteristic of a living being and becomes, to some extent, inorganic. Shells of mollusks are a good example of hardening the surface of the membrane to protect sensitive parts of the organism.
The skin isn’t only a shield and the outer physical limit of the body but is also deeply connected with our consciousness. Freud defined consciousness as a function of the surface, which represents the area of contact between the external and internal worlds of the organism. When we go to sleep, we gradually lose consciousness and become unaware of ourselves – we shut the outside world out. At that time, our perception of external and internal stimuli drops sharply, allowing us to sleep. A strong anesthetic works the same way.
Protecting the organism from an indefensible stimulus is part of the ego’s adaptable function, which is to protect a person’s integrity. That way, the ego can even deny some aspects of the outer reality as some sort of a defense mechanism in an inescapable situation. I work with clients who described their childhoods as happy and their parents as loving, despite simultaneously admitting to traumatic beatings, punishments, and critiques. For children to survive such situations, they must suppress their rebellious instincts and submit, which can only be done by denying their feelings and denying their parent’s true behavior. They use their skeletal muscles to defend themselves against overwhelming stimuli from within, creating a state of numbness and freezing, even though many years have passed since the events that caused this state.
It is important to remember that these four patterns of chronically activated reflexes are generally accepted and understood as unavoidable aspects of aging. Aging, however, is not a pathology, nor is longevity necessarily associated with these symptoms, except in the sense that the longer we live, the more trauma and stress we experience. Aging is usually the very factor that often leads doctors away from detecting SMA, as its symptoms are attributed to age or age-related degenerative changes.
GENERAL SOMATIC THEORY
The AEQ method differentiates between the third- and first-person view. The first-person view is subjective, set in the present; I am me, and I am my bodily consciousness. By learning to understand the differences between views and the appropriateness of using one or another view, we enable a person to understand the role and importance of body awareness in regulating and upgrading body reactions, states, and patterns. That way, we allow them to accept the pain as a warning and teacher. They learn to change their soma, which is their body but felt from the inside.
The word soma describes a rich and constantly floating matrix of sensations and actions that occur within the experience of each of us. The somatic aspect offers insight and categorically impossible variants through the bodily and measurable aspects that are the established perspective of psychological science and medical practice. At the same time, in such an approach, the main role must be assigned to the person with SMA and not to the environment, which can only help, advise and teach them in this transformation.
The thing everyone is experiencing is themselves – a functioning, feeling being. Experience (this is a term more closely related to traditional consciousness and awareness) is a sensory-motor event in which feeling cannot be separated from movement, and movement cannot be separated from feeling, and this is the basis and foundation of personal reality. This inseparability means that what we do not feel, we cannot move; what we cannot move, we cannot feel.
Thomas Hanna, who developed clinical somatics, which the AEQ method is based on, divided experience into two layers. The phylogenetic layer and the ontogenetic layer.
The phylogenetic layer is the countless sensory-motor programs that evolved through the mammalian and vertebrate species, all the way back to the earliest forms of life. These programs, reflexive and autonomous in their nature, are an ancient ocean of experience of our ancestors, from which the body takes its reactions and instincts, reflexes, and patterns over which we have little or no conscious influence and are usually unaware of. Hanna called this layer the archsoma. It enables us to unconscious processes and thus enables the division of the conscious and the unconscious. We solve problems, fulfill desires, and progress to higher development with awareness.
The ontogenetic layer is comprised of countless sensory-motor programs which we learn from our birth. The ontogenetic layer of experience is the result of learned adaptations. It consists of a part of our experiences that we call conscious and a part of our actions that we call voluntary.
Our conscious, voluntary experiences originate from the subconscious part of the phylogenetic layer of experience. We are nothing but a bundle of involuntary reflexes and autonomous processes when we are born. A baby uses what was first a reflex move into an increasingly controlled coordination, which allows it greater control of freedom of movement.
By increasing body awareness, we gradually learn the way to the world of conscious, voluntary control, and through maturation and increasing the complexity of feelings and increasing control, we grow up, thus increasing the complexity of connections in the cerebral cortex. If something occurs that triggers a strong, involuntary autonomous reflex, it greatly influences our sensory-motor world, which changes due to unconscious control and the interference of our subconscious. We cannot influence this, even though we’re performing the move consciously or are aware that something isn’t the way it should be because we feel pain without any known cause; we can only relearn the way out of this distortion. The neurologic difference between the phylogenetic and ontogenetic layers lies in the subcortical, lower parts of the brain and in the cortical, upper parts of the brain. When sensory-motor amnesia occurs, the subcortical reflexes can be said to have stolen the learned controls from the cortex. Somatic education is the only path we can choose if we want to overcome SMA and gain greater voluntary control over our physical and psychological processes.
Sensory-motor amnesia is eliminated by the sensory-motor process, which gradually restores the path of body sensations and increases the ability to direct attention to body consciousness, thereby reminding the conscious cortex of what it stopped feeling and doing. This can be done in several ways that the AEQ method teacher uses during an active individual session:
- By helping the person to become aware of their unconscious, involuntary movement patterns (means whereby).
- With kinetic mirroring, which passively initiates the process of relaxing involuntarily contracted muscles and increases the sensitivity of consciousness to sensations from the body.
- With the pandicular response.
The third way to eliminate SMA is much more efficient than the other two and is most commonly used by a teacher of the AEQ method. It is based on the action pattern of pandiculation, which changes the path of the sensory-motor loop and moves it from the subconscious into the conscious. This enables the ability of the conscious part of the central nervous system to be raised to detect and decrease the tone of the skeletal muscles.
Pandiculation is a name given to the action pattern that usually occurs throughout the vertebrate kingdom. It is a sensory-motor act used by animals to excite the conscious cortex by making a strong conscious muscle tension. Thus, they achieve a strong sensory stimulation of the motor neurons in the cerebral cortex. This is a way of awakening the sensory-motor cortex.
If you observe a cat or dog when they’re waking up, you will notice that they first stretch (pandiculate); they will strain the large extensor muscles of the back, which are essential for running. Pandiculation prepares an animal for normal movement and sensation by readying the conscious cortex for efficient operation. Birds pandiculate by raising one wing in a backward direction while simultaneously extending the opposite leg backward. A. F. Frasier, a recognized authority on the phenomenon of pandicular response, confirmed that pandiculation occurs as early as the embryonic stage. With a fluoroscopic study of lamb fetuses, he observed this event of cortex programming through sudden fetus limb movements.
Pandiculation is also strongly present in human beings. Pregnant women don’t only feel the fetus’s kicks but also their stretching. The fact that pandiculation is present in both vertebrates as well as mammals, before birth and later through independent development and life, shows the phylogenetic depth of this ancient pattern of neuromuscular regulation, which obviously improves the chances of their struggle for survival.
People also stretch when they wake up: we stretch our back, legs, arms, and jaw with typical stretching movements. Babies, children, and young people move their bodies and limbs similarly to other mammals. In all cases, it is directly related to awakening—that is, the ancient sensory-motor pattern of cortical arousal and raising attention to the appropriate level necessary to transition from sleep and dreams to being awake.
The pandicular response is a primary sensory-motor method used by teachers of the AEQ method. Instead of the teacher focusing on ensuring sensory feedback with their own manipulation, the client is instead guided on the table to express a sufficiently strong but painless conscious tension of the amnesic muscles, with which he creates their own strong sensory feedback loop. This ensures a simultaneous sensory reinforcement of motor neuron activation (when conscious contraction of selected muscle groups continues into movement).
The effects of a properly performed pandicular response are surprising. Muscle groups that have been under constant tension for 40 years or more will not only relax but will stay relaxed with a little help. This sensory-motor change is immediate and painless. The fact that long-lasting chronic muscle tensions disappear this fast is not very surprising from a neurologic perspective. If the change occurs in the heart of a sensory-motor experience, the periphery muscles have no choice but to transfer the change to the muscles and lower the tension levels. Muscles execute orders given by the nervous system and return sensory feedback as they don’t possess a will of their own.
We can see how the pandicular response functions if we take a closer look. If, for example, a person lost 40% of their conscious control and transferred it to the subcortical reflexes, they still retain 60%; but cannot relax the muscles below 40% tone, which they are unaware of. The pandicular response opens up a new natural way of regaining conscious control: a person cannot relax a muscle under 40% but can consciously increase the tension – for example, to 70%. If performed correctly, this conscious contraction creates the sensory information that the cortex lacks. If this strong tension is released very slowly and consciously controlled, the sensory excitation of the motor neurons is of such a form and intensity that when the muscles relax to their original level of tension of 40%, they continue to fall below this level – to thirty percent, then to twenty percent, then ten percent, until we reach the ideal state of a relaxed soft long muscle.
Teaching a person to perform pandiculation in this way is neither obvious nor easy, but once learned, the teacher of the AEQ method adds a major component to the tower of somatic education: the authentic achievement of raising sensory-motor control. Greater cortical control is the achievement of greater freedom and autonomy—a palpable and obvious goal of a species that has, through evolution, developed a cerebral cortex of enormous capacity for learning.
To summarize, proper learning of the AEQ method involves a comprehensive understanding of how pathological functions develop, a general theory of human sensory-motor functioning, and a powerful set of methods for modifying this pathology with predictable effectiveness. When all three conditions are met, we have an innovation in the field of chronic pain relief.
AEQ method teachers change conditions. We don’t find a balance in people but create it.
Aleš Ernst, author of the AEQ method and AEQ breathing.