Systema and Mental Health

April 08, 2021 by Dr. Albert Allen  
Anecdotes abound, of Systema practitioners finding increased capacity for calm, happy, and easygoing interactions with other people. Having experienced these changes myself, I started to wonder how Systema practice might be used to treat mental illnesses. Systema practices to cultivate internal relaxation have been particularly applicable to mental health, especially in the treatment of anxiety and trauma-related disorders.

From my perspective, many of the practices in Systema can be used to train a person to relax the mind and body in the face of a stressful situation – relaxing while falling down, relaxing when in a tense position or a lock, relaxing during cold water dousing, relaxing during endurance training, finding and releasing tension when receiving massage. Breathing is used to bring awareness into the body and release physical and psychological tension, with practical, combative applicability – being able to continue one’s movement and allowing for more integrated movements, using all the muscles instead of just a few large groups. It seems to me that when we are internally tense we also have to fight against the body’s own resistance to movement. If all of the muscles are over-tense then certain muscle groups have to activate even more. The test of smooth movement and combative applicability ensure that the practitioner learns to relax internally in a meaningful way.

Using the breathing to “relax into” the stress and release the internal resistance or tension seems to be helpful for dealing with not only fear, but other kinds of emotions like grief and anger, that may be “stuck”. Polyvagal theory is one framework for understanding how this might work. Polyvagal theory is an extended framework for understanding the effects and implications of the autonomic nervous system – the branch of the nervous system responsible for controlling functions that are typically thought of as unconscious and automatic – the movements of smooth muscles (such as the digestive tract), heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It is perhaps most recognizable as the branch of the nervous system controlling the well-known “fight-or-flight” response, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system producing a suite of physiological changes – the release of adrenaline, increased blood pressure, rising heart rate and respiration, dilation of the pupils, to name a few – which prepare the body for a burst of activity. The parasympathetic nervous system produces opposing changes, promoting rest and relaxation. Stephen Porges and others expanded on the understanding of the autonomic nervous system by identifying that the parasympathetic nervous system has two branches – a more primitive dorsal (on the back side of the body) branch that causes a shut-down or freezing response, and a ventral (on the belly side of the body) branch that is thought to calm down the nervous system without fully shutting it down. This latter system is also called the Social Engagement System, because it is believed to have evolved to counteract the sympathetic nervous system, allowing humans to relax and be able to relate to one another in a calm way, but without being so shut down so as to be frozen. One of the insights from polyvagal theory is that the state of the autonomic nervous system also affects the functioning of the mind – having an overactive sympathetic nervous system biases the brain towards finding and combatting threats, limiting the ability to think in flexible, creative, and social ways. Being in such a threat-focused state, also limits one’s ability to process negative emotions, take a different perspective, or find a solution. Bringing the mind-body system into an optimized state – relaxed, calm, and open – is a principle of many existing forms of therapy that are applied to anxiety and trauma, such as Compassion-Focused Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Systema work may provide additional tools to not only put the mind-body system into a state of optimal relaxation, but to allow it to stay there under a wider range of conditions. This, to me, seems to be a key contribution of Systema to health. Polyvagal theory posits the concept of a vagal brake – similar to finely controlling the speed of a car at low speeds, by releasing the brake in a subtle and controlled manner to release more power from the engine as needed. In this mode, the parasympathetic nervous system is acting as a brake on the sympathetic nervous system, allowing baseline energy to be released gradually in order to meet the demands of the situation. This contrasts with fight-or-flight mode, when the sympathetic nervous system surges and adrenaline is released widely in the body, in order to rapidly liberate energy to respond to a threat. This may achieve the goal of making energy available, but not in a controlled way. In individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders, this may be one mechanism for their symptoms – the comfortable operating range over which the vagal brake operates, may be quite small, and the fight-or-flight response is engaging too often to meet ordinary demands of life, leading to panicky feelings, bodily tension, and feelings of stress and avoiding challenges. In a more subtle way, the average person may similarly experience chronic stress by relying on the sympathetic nervous system, far too often.

Systema practices of inducing relaxation are different from how we mental health professionals typically work to induce relaxation – very often, we might tell people to do something comfortable and passive, like lying down, listening to music, stretching, walking in nature, and sitting at the beach. Other methods like meditation or restorative yoga have a similarly passive feeling, and this may be the nature of the limitation of these methods; relaxation can be achieved, but the capacity to relax is not necessarily enhanced.

The insight from Systema practice is that doing something stressful might actually be more relaxing than doing the activities we usually think of as relaxing. By stressing the body with a charge of cold water, a breath hold, a lock, or a fall, the mind and body can be trained to relax and the comfortable operating range – the range of conditions over which the vagal brake (or vagal tone) controls energy availability – can be expanded. This, in turn, allows the practitioner to remain in a calm enough state in the face of a stressful emotion (or traumatic memory) to successfully address it. This concept is not unique to Systema practice; yoga practice also may involve relaxing the mind and body into an uncomfortable position in order to find more calm and ease, or a meditation practitioner may deliberately recall a psychologically stressful situation while meditating to maintain calm. Systema, however, may be particularly helpful by making the concept readily obvious and understandable through its applicability to combat and survival.

Systema is likely relevant to another emerging aspect of mental health treatment - interoception, the sense of the internal state of the body. Interoception is now thought to be implicated in various mental disorders including depression, anxiety, trauma disorders, and autism. The awareness of internal states appears to be heightened or diminished, depending on the condition. In individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, the internal awareness of the body is thought to be diminished, leading to a sense of being disconnected from the body, whereas people with panic disorder might be hyper-sensitive to changes to their internal state. A common element, perhaps, may be a lack of integration between interoception and other mental processes required for healthy functioning. Emotions correspond to changes in one’s physiological state – for example, changes in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate, and overall muscle tension. When this information about the internal state is processed together with a cognitive evaluation of the situation, the information is interpreted as an emotion such as fear, anger, or sadness. Being unable to sense one’s internal state or being unable to integrate that perception with an appropriate response, would lead to a problem with responding adaptively to emotions, for example, abnormally intense emotions, inappropriate behaviours, or problems with socialization. Conversely, improving one’s ability to sense one’s bodily state and act on that information in a controlled way to achieve a desired response, would improve one’s emotional, mental, and physical adjustment to life.

In order to be able to relax in a stressful situation, I believe a person must be able to feel the state of tension or relaxation in their body and also to have a memory of what a state of relaxation feels like. What is now known about interoception suggests that the feeling of what is happening in the body is actually a simulation of what physiological state the brain expects will be needed to respond to the immediate future, rather than a reactive awareness of the body’s state in the present. This suggests that the mind creates physiological changes by expectation effects; if this is true, then it is particularly important to have a mental “template” of optimal relaxation, because without knowledge of the goal then the brain will not be able to create it in the body. The feeling of internal relaxation, which is very difficult to describe in words, has been strongly emphasized in the online Systema classes. The feeling of “melting” into the floor when lying down, feeling “clear” in the body when standing, having a sense of heaviness in the hands, feeling calm and ready, or experiencing a quality of lightness and subtlety in the breathing, may all be ways of experiencing not only a relaxation of excess muscle tension in the body, but also the optimal comfortable operating range of the nervous system. By implementing practices to (e.g. tiring the body out so much that it starts to move in a relaxed way) and “checking” the relaxation with practical applications (like falling without pain), I believe the Systema practitioner develops this internalized template of relaxation and optimal functioning so that this state can be produced intentionally, on command.

From my experience so far, Systema could expand the toolbox of mental health professionals, to improve the vagal tone and interoceptive awareness of their patients and themselves, in order to reduce symptoms of anxiety and aid in processing of past trauma. While patients might not necessarily be interested in learning Systema for combat, the combative potential or applicability as a measure of being able to relax in a functional way, may be uniquely helpful as a way of achieving health goals. I am looking forward to continuing my training and deepening my knowledge of this rich tradition and would strongly recommend it to anyone hoping to improve their mental health.

Dr. Albert Allen Dr. Allen is a practicing psychiatrist since 2013, now working primarily with a First Nations Health Authority in Ontario, Canada. A Systema student since 2019, with extensive previous martial arts experience.