When Trauma strikes. Addressing physiological and biological nervous system responses in the healing of trauma through Craniosacral Therapy
Trauma is often only understood as a psychological reaction that we need to deal with in the mind. Trauma is also very much a physiological reaction that circulates in the body long after the event, as our reactions and responses to trauma are primarily bodily ones. During a traumatic or threatening situation we tend to go into a highly charged freeze or fight/flight response. This undischarged residual energy can, unconscious to us, remain in our body for many years as an incomplete physiological response manifesting itself as physical symptoms like e.g.: sleep disturbances, anxiety, hyper vigilance, irritability, tinnitus, digestive problems, jaw problems, back problems, migraines, depression, inflammation and be a host to all sorts of various complex pains and chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. The key to resolving and healing Trauma lies in our physiology, in our bodily responses that needs to be resolved and discharged. (M. Kern, Wisdom in the body, 2005). Our physiology is regulated by our nervous system. Our nervous system sends messages to our body and has a big role to play in creating and maintaining our symptoms. No other modality addresses the Nervous system like Craniosacral Therapy as it lowers the sympathetic nervous system responsible for our fight/fight and enhances our parasympathetic nervous system responsible for our freeze response but also for our relaxation response. Craniosacral therapy allows the body to come back into a physiological balance, so the body can release any underlying stress, tension and emotional patterns that lie deeply stored within the body. This is so critical and of paramount importance in overcoming not only any kind of trauma but also for chronic pain and complex and chronic illness, as I witness in my clinics on a daily basis.
Craniosacral addresses a wide variety of symptoms and conditions from physical pains, structural misalignments, muscular tensions to emotional blockages. During my training, trauma and stress release was definitely my favourite subject: working with the nervous system survival responses and the residual effects of trauma lodged in the body.………. ironically, never in a million years did I think trauma would strike me. I came to experience what I had learned during my education when a good few years ago, my world became a very dark and lonely place as I suffered a severe physical & emotional trauma. As a result, I experienced a multitude of physical symptoms: non-stop raging headaches, migraines, tinnitus, neck pain, poor blood circulation, anxiety, nerve tingling and extreme sensitivity to light, to name a few. For months, I was unable to sleep or eat, the world was a scary place. The rug had been pulled out from underneath me, I was lost.
So my Dr's, specialists and hospital rounds began, from A to Z from the GP to the Neurologist to the Psychiatrist, each with their own well-intended prescription pads: pain killers beta blockers, digestive relief, anti-anxiety, anti-depressants, muscle relaxants, laxatives, anti-inflammatory, stomach acid reduction pills, sleeping tablets, valium and narcotics in all sorts of varieties form tramadol to oxycodone to oxycontin. I ended up being the Pharmacy.
I wanted to clear my anxious state, calm my nervous system, improve my sleeping but most of all find relief for all my physical symptom by resolving them at root cause. I did not want a pill for every ill as I personally could not see, how that would resolve anything at root cause or bring any long-term solution, as the primary innate biological forces that controlled my symptoms seemed to be overlooked, disregarded and not addressed in this medical model. Thank goodness I knew Cranio and turned to my Swiss colleague: a highly skilled buddy and certified Cranio angel extraordinaire.
During my first few cranial sessions we focused on my mental and emotional body by getting me back into my body, becoming less disassociated, as my body was a terrifying place to be in after the trauma. In fact, for the first 2 sessions I was not able to get on the table as touch was just too overwhelming. As my nervous system was in overstimulated state of constant sympathetic stimulation and my bodily systems so overwhelmed, my therapist focused on calming my nervous system allowing me to become less anxious, less hyper-vigilant and releasing the undischarged residual energy in a very safe and contained way. We focused on my disturbed vagus nerve by activating the ventral vagus response. My therapist could only move as fast as my body felt safe to let go, peeling away the layers whilst she facilitated an incredible safe space and presence for me to do so. In further sessions, we were able to deal with my physical body and its pain. I became aware of how much tension I had really been holding, as my therapist was unwinding the tissues, layer by layer and releasing all my restrictions and pain. In one session I could feel this immense anger bubbling up, because of what had happened. I had no idea that this anger but also intense sadness had been living so deep inside of me. I had suppressed my emotions in order to cope, a common theme amongst trauma victims but also for many people in day to day life. I have lived through what I had learned in my education and I have an even deeper respect of how the body deals and expresses itself through any kind of life event or circumstance, big or small. I cleared all my physical and mental symptoms by addressing my nervous system that was so out of whack and so overwhelmed. Frequent Craniosacral sessions also addressed my physiology and my fascia (connective tissue) in my physical body and Craniosacral therapy addressed my emotional body by releasing all these emotions that I had stored through safe and natural releases. Craniosacral therapy truely acknowledges the whole person and works with the interconnected physical, mental and emotional body.
Thank goodness I found my way back to my happy, bubbly, pain-free, belly laughing self with even a greater passion, empathy and understanding for my work and for all my clients. In my own practice I see people with all kinds of symptoms: acute, one-off or with more chronic and long-standing problems. For these clients their history often reveals that there has been a long road of other seemingly unrelated problems, inflammations, anxiety, autoimmune conditions or neurological problems. By the time these clients come and see me, they have taken various roads to try and resolve their symptoms. They have had things cut out, removed, fused, worked on but are still in pain and often on long-term medication as a symptom management. The source of their symptoms however is often traceable to a form of trauma in their past that is still being carried in the present through unconscious emotions, the biology of stress and/or cut of body responses.
Trauma can be a one-off significant event but trauma can also be experienced in a more slow, cumulative kind of way through childhood adversity like an abusive parent/sibling, an emotionally cold, alcoholic, absent or mentally unwell parent. It can be experienced through work, accidents, illness or toxic relationships. Most of my clients are aware that there is some level off trauma on an intellectual level but are unaware of the imprints the trauma has left in their body, mind and soul on a more primal level. Their experiences have created physiological effects in their body and left marks, continuing to behave and react as if the experience is still happening and therefore can be triggered by seemingly unrelated new experiences.
Renowned Boston based Dutch Psychiatrist and my favorite author on the subject matter Bessel van der Kolk states: ”the most essential aspect of healing is learning to fully inhabit our inner sense of self in all its dimensions– not only emotionally and psychological but bodily as well, as they are inseparable from one another”. “Some of the best therapy is largely non-verbal”. “I always recommend incorporating a bottom up approach like Yoga and Mindfulness and I always refer people to Craniosacral work”.
My pharmacy shop? I tried, but the pills were not for me and caused many side effects, although they most certainly can have a place and give initial support, just like a good psychologist. Some of my clients see a psychologist at the same time, which works really well and complementary together. I was fortunate that I had already discovered Cranio as a holistic mind-body approach and knew from experience that there are other fabulous complementary medicines. So I chose natural medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy as my multi-disciplinary approach. In the end I decided to let my own internal pharmacy go to work and found relief and validation in a quote from Hippocrates, the founder of Medicine: “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease”
Healing from the inside out, bringing the physiology back into balance, into homeostasis, allowing the natural forces within us to come into play and to self-correct is the strongest and longest lasting healing there ever could be.
Kern, M. (2005) Wisdom in the body.
Van der Kolk, B. (2017) How Trauma lodges itself in the body (online) available from http://www.onbeing.org
With immense gratitude and love that no words could every describe my Craniosacral Therapist: Monica Bovy - www.cranio-sante.ch