A recently discovered function of the autonomic nervous system
“Emotional release” is a nervous system event—specifically, in the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system—wherein muscles of the head and trunk contract suddenly and involuntarily as bursts of emotion are keenly felt and expressed. Muscle contraction is easily observed in sobbing that relieves grief, but occurs with other emotions as well. Involuntary muscle contraction is an indispensable component of the emotion discharge process. Without a sudden, full contraction, a painful emotion cannot be fully discharged for complete relief. However, full contraction occurs only when one’s experience of emotion peaks. Therefore, the psychotherapeutic sequence that neutralizes repressed psychological trauma requires 1) removal of defenses preventing direct contact with repressed emotion, 2) keen experience of painful emotion, 3) and uninhibited expression of painful emotion, during which 4) muscles contract involuntarily and fully. Satisfactory emotion discharge is followed by reduced muscle tension, expanded breathing, and deep emotional relief—an experience we recognize as relaxation, a function of the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.
These mechanics of emotion discharge have been studied and pursued in advanced psychotherapy methods for the past century, and are now established Western medical science. Psychological and biological pathologies alike have resolved spontaneously after pivotal emotion discharges. Even for practitioners without a medical background, the profound benefits of emotion discharge are common knowledge.
In the mid ‘90s, the early-stage Arneson Method of Guided Relaxation discovered that the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) discharge mechanism can manifest literally anywhere in the musculoskeletal system, from head to foot. The prerequisite is the presence of a localized, pathologic stress response that results from 1) traumatic injury (a strong impact or yanking force that damages tissues), or 2) ongoing irritation (e.g. overuse injury) that engenders tissue stagnation, or 3) trauma followed by stagnation, as in sports injuries that eventually develop osteoarthritis. However, when the discharge mechanism is activated for traumatic injury or stagnation, the feeling discharged is localized physical pain, as opposed to emotions of grief, fear, etc. The two applications are otherwise identical, with comparably profound benefits. These observations suggest two conclusions: 1) The SNS discharge mechanism exists not only to relieve emotional pressure and neutralize trauma memories, but also to eliminate chronic, pathologic stress response and tissue stagnation. 2) Discharge is a native function of the autonomic nervous system, expressed as needed throughout the body—as opposed to head and trunk muscles exclusively.
In medical literature, “stress response” distinguishes tissue contraction from the emotional experience of “stress.” The emotion of stress is literally one’s experience of tissue contraction, either systemic or localized. For example, tight shoulder muscles indicate a systemic stress response, but also local muscle tissue contraction. In other words, emotions cannot be separated from activity in the autonomic nervous system, which registers at the tissue level.
In addition to our defensive response to a threat (the “fight or flight” response), tissue contraction serves many other purposes. All contraction events are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, with or without a stress response per se. For example, following a slow expansion of the bladder, a sudden, involuntary contraction empties the bladder during urination. Local tissue contraction activates immune and regenerative mechanisms to heal tissue damage caused by accident or disease. Importantly, involuntary tissue contraction discharges painful feelings and neutralizes trauma memories. A trauma memory is neutralized when the emotional charge is removed from the memory. In this case, full contraction leads directly to relaxation instead of more stress response, i.e. partial contraction. As demonstrated by dozens of body therapies and psychotherapies that elicit emotion discharge, painful feelings are literally contained in body tissues, waiting for release via full contraction.
Memories of physical trauma are no different. Traumatic injuries provoke an acute, local stress response in the injury site, which produces pain. (Even without tissue damage, acute tissue contraction can produce pain, e.g. muscle spasm.) After the injury heals, local stress response is no longer needed for tissue healing. However, if the stress response persists after the injury heals, it may provoke chronic or intermittent pain indefinitely. I call this leftover stress response the “injury memory”—a memory of physical trauma contained in the tissues of the injury site. One could say that the body area was “scared” by the injury, and cannot relax now without intervention. Moreover, the average person resists feeling injury-related pain, unwittingly blocking the natural discharge-relaxation process intrinsic to the autonomic nervous system. Injury memory—i.e. chronic tissue contraction—is thereby frozen in the injury site, giving us the epidemic of injury-related chronic pain.
Pain management methods exist to relax chronic stress responses that otherwise produce pain. However, one must ask, why do injury-related stress response and pain recur following treatment? Why not simply remain relaxed and pain-free? The answer lies in the character of the stress response contained in the injury site. The injury site was traumatized. The stress response therein is no ordinary contraction—very different from average, stress-induced muscle spasms. Complete relaxation and symptom elimination require activation of our healing function specifically designed to neutralize trauma memories. The feeling of pain must be discharged from the tissues of the injury site. Following pain discharge, the injury site relaxes immediately, completely, and permanently, for permanent pain relief, years or decades after the injury healed. This has been a consistent observation in my practice since the mid ‘90s. See case studies.
Mechanically speaking, access to SNS pain discharge is basically identical to the psychotherapeutic process that uncovers emotional trauma for emotion discharge. In both cases, the discharge mechanism is triggered by the subject’s direct contact with feelings. This dynamic is easily verified by personal experience; one cannot emote without a strong feeling that triggers expression and release. Specifically, contact with feeling triggers full contraction of the tissues and organs containing the feeling. In contrast, absence of feeling and resistance to feeling do not permit full contraction. In fact, as demonstrated in psychotherapies, resistance compounds the chronic stress response (partial contraction) that one experiences as ongoing misery. The same is true of injury-related pain, which worsens with anxiety and catastrophizing, which constitute resistance to feeling. (Pain is produced by the stress response; adding more stress response adds more pain.) One (of several) reasons why pain discharge is a recent discovery is the fact that the average person resists feeling pain. Neither sufferers nor practitioners think to embrace the pain and observe how the nervous system responds.
In all medicine, procedures support the target healing function. Likewise, access to pain discharge requires specific conditions that must be provided by the method. I began developing the Arneson Method of Guided Relaxation in 1991, which eventually led to several major discoveries including injury memory and pain discharge. The critical elements are 1) comprehensive relaxation, which affords 2) concentrated rest, which 3) energizes the whole body and the injury site in particular, permitting 4) contact with injury-related pain and full contraction of traumatized tissues. Naturally, the body understands its own healing functions. It actually wants to feel and discharge pain from the injury site, and will predictably seize the opportunity when the necessary conditions are presented. As the injury site becomes energized, local sensation builds to a distinct feeling of pain, which then peaks for two to ten seconds when the tissues of the injury site contract fully. The experience is similar to the TENS unit effect; tissues in a small area contract involuntarily. However, pain discharge is unique in that the tissues contract together, as a single unit, three-dimensionally through the body, e.g. the entire knee joint plus muscle attachments at the knee. The subject feels a squeezing from inside the area. Again, the mechanism is a function of the autonomic (i.e. involuntary) nervous system; discharge is automatic, facilitated merely by the subject’s attention to feeling.
Only when sufficiently energized can the body perform the work of discharge. For this reason, some subjects require facilitated, deep rest for more than one hour on the treatment table, followed by a week of improved rest at home, followed by a second treatment. Others need less rest, so they proceed directly to discharge in 15 minutes total, in a single treatment. Even longstanding injury memory is “shallow” in the nervous system—a fortunate fact that permits discharge and permanent pain resolution in one or two treatments as a rule. In contrast, psychological trauma may require years of therapy before the subject can tolerate, contact, and discharge painful feelings.
Insidiously, injury memory (i.e. low-grade, chronic stress response) can provoke secondary symptoms—pain and limited range of motion in surrounding areas—without pain in the injury site itself. Stress response in the injury site may not be strong enough to produce pain in that one spot. However, even when the injury site does not experience pain for many years, injury memory “surfaces” during treatment. Again, the body understands its own healing functions. When sufficiently rested and energized, the injury site will once again feel pain, which then peaks during discharge. Such cases seek treatment due to secondary symptoms, which result from a domino effect of stress response spreading from the original injury site to surrounding areas. Then, with the source of the domino effect eliminated, secondary symptoms have resolved spontaneously and consistently, without further attention. Moreover, even where secondary pain was severe, pain discharge occurred only in the original injury site. These observations point to the fact that injury memory is a unique pathology contained exclusively in the injury site. Pain discharge does not occur without injury memory or tissue stagnation; it’s a healing function designed for very specific applications.
To illustrate the mysterious effect of a concealed injury memory, my list of case studies includes a Navy veteran’s head injury case. He sustained a concussion at the top of his head 32 years before his pain discharge therapy. He felt no pain in the injury site for over 20 years, and thus presumed that the injury was completely healed. However, he had secondary symptoms—restricted neck range of motion plus frequent headaches. At that time, in the early stages of the method, neither one of us suspected a connection between the concussion and his chronic symptoms. We were both surprised when, after 20 minutes of relaxation and rest, the injury site developed a dull pain. The pain briefly peaked, then abruptly stopped. Interestingly, his secondary neck tension relaxed immediately, as if we had treated his neck. This was three decades of unnecessary suffering and monetary expense decisively and permanently halted with a single, non-invasive treatment. Since that head injury case, I have learned that injury-related pain can be indefinitely chronic, intermittent, or absent. Candidates for pain discharge therapy should not be dissuaded from pursuing permanent pain relief regardless of pain duration, location of the injury, or number/type of pain relief methods attempted previously.
The other confirmed application for the SNS pain discharge mechanism is elimination of local tissue stagnation, with equally impressive outcomes. Stagnation of metabolism and accumulation of cellular waste occurs when a chronic stress response contracts blood vessels and other tissues for a prolonged period. Especially vulnerable are synovial joints in the knee, hip, and spine, wherein the slow exchange of nutrients and waste through the synovial capsule wall is impeded further by chronic tissue contraction. According to my theory, such stagnation in and around the capsule causes anti-inflammatory mechanisms to become pro-inflammatory, resulting in osteoarthritis. Such a stress response can be caused by traumatic injuries, overuse injuries, or excessive weight combined with a poor diet and exercise regimen. Again, the effect of pain discharge is complete relaxation of the stress response, i.e. full expansion of all local tissues including blood and lymphatic vessels. After discharge, the subject experiences not only instant pain relief, but also a pleasurable surge of circulation throughout the joint. Then, presumably, normal circulation washes away the products of tissue stagnation. For those subjects diagnosed with osteoarthritis, the outcome has been either permanent or extremely prolonged pain relief, suggesting that the inflammatory process stopped altogether. Of course, if certain subjects don't make critical lifestyle changes, the stress response may eventually return to restart the osteoarthritis biochemical process, which produces pain. Yet, even where osteoarthritis recurred, the duration of complete pain relief following discharge therapy was extraordinary, with a single treatment. See the osteoarthritis case study. In addition to standalone treatment, pain discharge warrants investigation as an adjunct to physiotherapy, surgery, stem cell therapy, and pharmacological approaches to osteoarthritis pain and degeneration.
Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS/RSD) is the most painful chronic pain condition known to medicine. In the third stage of the disease, the affected area (notably the extremities) suffers severe atrophy of all tissues, including bone. There is no known cure for third stage degeneration. However, multiple pain discharges over several months effected not only lasting pain relief, but also a radical reversal of tissue atrophy. See the CRPS case study. Tissue stagnation was relieved in stages with each pain discharge, with steadily decreasing pain and increasing tissue mass—suggesting that the third stage of CRPS (at least) is caused by stagnation. Due to the typical resistance to innovations in natural medicine, my clinical research has yet to discover the effects of pain discharge on the first two stages of CRPS.
During the Arneson Method’s counseling stage of development, I had a client with chronic hepatitis C, a worst-case scenario. She received counseling sessions for four months before starting chemotherapy (Interferon). Only after she began chemotherapy, she experienced several pain discharges in her liver area, probably from the liver itself. Soon thereafter, her blood test showed zero virus. Shocked, her doctors tested her blood several times to rule out mistakes. The causative role of chemotherapy in her discharge experience is not yet understood. However, her case suggests that many more applications for pain discharge therapy may yet be discovered, and pharmacological outcomes improved, as chronic stress response and stagnation are givens in many disease processes. See the hepatitis C case study.
If researchers cannot activate a healing function, they will never know that such a response is possible. The SNS pain discharge mechanism is a recent discovery because the method that elicits pain discharge is a recent development. The Arneson Method of Guided Relaxation provides exactly the conditions needed for pain discharge plus a range of other responses. Logically, for any medical problem, there must be a best possible remedy—the one that comes closest to providing ideal conditions for the target healing function. The Arneson Method is likely the best method available to the human body, specifically for injury-related chronic pain, because 1) the root of the problem has been identified, 2) the specialized healing function that fixes the problem has been identified, and 3) the only known method that activates that healing function has been refined over three decades.
Pain discharge is the holy grail of injury and degeneration-related pain medicine, for multiple epidemics, but it’s usable only if one possesses a method of activation. It’s quite possible that two electronic devices could be developed, one similar to a TENS unit, that provide conditions necessary for pain discharge. Naturally, the company that produces such a device would be immensely profitable. However, before the device can be engineered, pain discharge needs to be formally verified and exhaustively researched in clinical trials, using the only known method of activation. My search continues for a research team and facility willing to undertake such a controversial study.
It's important to note that pain researchers in neurology—study of the nervous system—are not yet aware of the SNS pain discharge mechanism. They cannot know that it exists until they 1) acknowledge the emotional-biological mechanics of trauma resolution and 2) observe the method that activates the mechanism. To date—of the thousand researchers contacted by name in a dozen countries in the last five years—not one of them has requested a free demonstration. I suspect that part of the resistance stems from the widespread, incorrect assumption that a localized stress response cannot exist (and cause pain) in the absence of tissue damage. In other words, there’s no such thing as a nervous system memory of trauma. Hence, neurologists study the brain to account for injury-related chronic pain, which may persist indefinitely after the injury damage heals. Fortunately, the actual problem is not nearly as complicated as neurologists believe. Pain discharge therapy proves absolutely that chronic stress response can be localized, with or without tissue damage, and that the body is naturally equipped to eliminate it for complete symptom resolution. Pain discharge is literally the final stage of healing an injury.