Combating the Winter Blues

Combating the Winter Blues:  The Withdrawal Response

Written By: Jevin Boardman, LMT, (se)® DTR Therapist

All of us know too well the toll cold snowy weather can take on the body as we pull out our snow shovels, or when we take a step onto an icy sidewalk and our full body seizes as we catch ourselves. But we hardly think of the habitual reflex we resort to at the beginning of the season, and its gradual effects, as we adjust to the cold and prepare ourselves for the months ahead.

It goes by many names, including the withdrawal response, the startle response, and the escape response, but we all know it by sight — shoulders scrunched up to our ears, arms crossed and pressed into the chest, and low back and hips clenched with every step we take.

How it impacts your body:

Beginning with elevation of the shoulders, these reflex projects the head out, and stretches the base of the neck in holding the head from falling forward. But it doesn’t end with relentless contraction of the neck and shoulder muscles. This posture crowds the front of the body, cramps the rib cage, diaphragm and viscera, limiting the functionality of all three.

As this response is repeated and habituated, breathing can become more shallow and rigid (think hyperventilation), which causes increased heart rate, increased cardiac input, loss of parasympathetic control over cardiac functions and its replacement by sympathetic nervous functions. This all equates to a stress response in the nervous system and keeps you from being able to fully sink into your chair as you try to enjoy your cup of hot chocolate.

How you restore your body:

Since this posture is an unconscious reflex to a stressor, you can begin to correct it by making the brain more intelligent in sensing and controlling these muscles. Here are three things you can do at home to keep the reflex from letting you lose control of your posture and the fight or flight branch of your autonomic nervous system.

  1. Create a more conscious diaphragmatic breath.
  • Bring awareness to diaphragmatic breathing sitting upright in a chair, with a hand just below your rib cage and a hand against the chest. Inhale and pay attention to which hand moves first. You want to focus on breathing first from the bottom hand.
  • As you begin to pick up on your breathing cycle, start to control the breath by slowing it down. Shorten the inhalation (e.g. 3 seconds in) and extend the exhalation (e.g. 6 seconds out). Like any other muscle, you may notice difficulty in trying to get the muscle to respond to conscious movements it’s not used to performing. However, the more you train it, the more it will be within your control.
  1. Perform a chest opener to reverse and strengthen the opposite posture.
  • Link your hands behind your low back and slide them down towards the legs. The shoulder blades will then drop down and back.
  • Be conscious not to arch the back, but to engage the core and flatten the mid back to keep the rib cage down. Hold through (10) breath cycles.
  1. Take the Structural Elements® 30 Day Traction Challenge! Only three minutes a day! 

How to maintain your body:

We at Structural Elements® invite you to tie these exercises to actions that take you into and out of the cold. Every time you swing your coat behind to weave your arms into the sleeves, stop and hold the chest opener for a few breaths. First thing after starting the car and cranking the heat, close your eyes with the diaphragmatic breath and give yourself the minute until the vent finally gets warm. After a long day, upon returning home, adjust to the warmth on the living room floor in traction pose. 

Continuous practice of these mindful reprogramming exercises helps regain control of the connections amongst your shoulder blades, spine, and rib cage. This control can help negate the residual tension this reflex puts on your posture, and furthermore, the equilibrium of your body. 

Changes of seasons are notorious for altering habitual behaviors. The cold weather change affects the way we spend time outdoors, upkeep our properties and commute to destinations, among so many other pursuits. When assessing patients during treatment at Structural Elements®, we often see a correlation between habitual behavior changes with their sudden onset of discomfort or pain.

We can’t emphasize enough the importance of body consciousness during the winter. Proper alignment will optimize the above practices. Come in for an appointment and let us help you fight the winter blues!


Source: For more reading on body scanning and other exercises for movement reprogramming, check out Thomas Hanna’s book, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health.


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