Trauma. Therapists use that word alot. Perhaps because it's an easy reach. A catch-all vaguely understood term that attempts to describe an infinite number of indescribable internal experiences and physiological responses.
I'm going to start by offering my definition of trauma as well as what i've noticed in clients that come to cranio work about when they tend to seek help. I also touch on how craniosacral therapy can facilitate the integration of trauma in a way that is both safe but also meaningful.
It's my hope that we can start to redefine the way we work with trauma. Instead of seeing it as something to transform, to change, to release, to eliminate - as if its an external 'thing' that hangs on to us, let's start to celebrate trauma as a highly intelligent, unique and internal process completely dedicated to our survival. When we are able to embody that truth, integrate it into the whole of who we are, only then will we truly be able to say that trauma is not our enemy, but our teacher. Our gateway to learning and feeling an ever deepening self love.
What exactly is trauma?
Everyone is selling trauma therapy and trauma release these days. More and more people are talking about their mental health, their early life trauma and seeking solutions from group process, to therapists to plant medicines to 'heal their trauma.' 'Healing trauma' means something different to everyone.
I'll start by saying that in my view, trauma is not an event that happens to us. It is not a static thing. It is our internal response (physical, physiological, emotional and spiritual) to events that happen. Trauma is inherently connected to our inner felt sense and embodiment of our own existence. It is an intelligent, individual and internal survival response that is dynamic and occurs on a spectrum of what for now I will call sensitivity to feeling. We can't make it go away. We can only integrate it. Trauma responses are unique and personal, but also influenced by our cultural background, our historical ancestry, environmental and social factors.
Trauma is an intelligent, individual and internal response born from a deep desire to survive. It's inherently connected to our inner felt sense and embodiment of our own existence. We can't just make it disappear. We need to integrate it.
Our internal trauma response, whether it's fight or flight, is not designed to kill us or be a huge inconvenience in our lives. It is designed to keep us alive. Let's celebrate the intelligence in that. We are alive. We've made it! It's actually a big deal. For some people it's a much bigger deal than others. For example, clients who have been displaced from their original family system or from their country, whether it is because of war or because of bereavement or neglect, for example, merely being alive for them is a huge feat of courage and endurance. I've also noticed where clients have lost a parent, particularly their mother, at an early age, the mere fact they are alive is often where the body has chosen to reside and rest. It is not a matter of expanding into the world, it is a basic matter of staying alive. Challenges are interpreted unconsciously as life threatening leading to an internal response emotionally and physiologically, whereas another person might experience the same challenge as opportunity.
So when does our trauma response start to pose a problem? Being alive, is a dynamic experience. Safety and being held by mother for a new born baby is inherently more important than for a 21 year old, in the physical sense at least. Therefore the response that kept someone safe and held at 21 months is going to result in a different feeling of aliveness in a 21 year old. As we change, our trauma responses need to be as fluid as we are. When we start to respond to life events internally, in the same way we would if we were 21 months, that's usually when people start to notice there's a problem.
Integrating the trauma response is key to feeling lasting resolution and inner expansion
We need to understand clients based on what is happening inside them rather than what has happened to them. Clients will come in often with similar life patterns, but how they've responded to them varies wildly. Being looked after more by Grandma than mum as a baby for some children will be felt and internalised as a rejection, for others, often from Middle Eastern, Asian or African backgrounds where being raised by Grandma is actually an embedded ancestral norm, designed to strengthen the spiritual roots of the baby to their ancestors, will be felt as an entirely different bond and early life experience. My point is we cannot assume. We must not judge. We can only feel the truth of that person.
For example: unique trauma response could be emotional avoidance or desensitisation and a tendency to retreat from the world which leads a person to hide in their cave. The person has learned that this keeps them safe when they are feeling threatened. Perhaps it did, when they were young and raised in a violent family, for example. Or where expressing their emotion got them told off. Now, as an adult, rather than keeping them safe, their reflex leads to a feeling of isolation and disconnection. But the response is automatic and unconscious. So what happens next?
Rather than trying to change the response, we could start by bringing it into acceptance and allowing it to be present so that it is no longer felt as an overwhelming instinct. Then, bringing the person into a new relationship with their super skill - avoidance, so that rather than trying to change it or release the charge from their body, we allow them to reconstellate around it. This means developing a new relationship or relationships with the same charge. Integration means developing a new relationship with an aspect of our internal process. Take the example of anger. Often the charge is felt in the body and it is relatively straightforward to facilitate the dissipation of that by working with the body and organs. But what if we took it one step further to consider the same charge holds within it, not just anger but also the vibration of determination, of survival, of heat, of passion, of drive etc. It can be many things within one stream.
How can an avoidance reflex or a charge of anger held in the body be an opportunity for a client? How can it facilitates their life rather than impair it? Integrating trauma response is not just about bringing the body into a place of relaxation, it is about empowering a client to believe in themselves enough to stay with and open to the charge. Otherwise we will forever be rebalancing especially with clients who maintain exposure to triggers such as stressful work or family situations.
Integrating trauma requires us as therapists to work openly in the not knowing, spontaneously and creatively in our felt sense. We cannot think it. We cannot assume that emotions are one dimensional and that trauma responses are negative. We need to allow multiple relationships to constellate around the trauma response so that rather than becoming a predominant safety mechanism, it becomes a guiding star. To do this we need to feel into the multiple dimensions of restriction and expansion represented by everything that a client is holding. This includes their bitterness, their rage, their grief. Fully integrating these seemingly difficult emotions means finding that within them, in every shade of felt sense, there is a love emerging that can be absorbed by the system. If we are quick to try to dissipate charge because it is easy and provides a quick relief, we are missing the multidimensional subtle shades of life that can be regained by holding in reverence, the trauma reponse.
We need to feel into the multiple dimensions of restriction and expansion represented by everything that a client is holding.
On the example of avoidance, rather than assuming we know what it looks like or feels like, or that it's always a problematic thing for the client we could start by wondering what does it offer? My first thought is space. So a client is perhaps trying to create space. What is space? For each person space will mean something different. What happens in that space? What do they want to experience in their space? How do they want to relate to and embody space? How can I model the experience they need of space in therapy with them, as I speak and as I work with their system? Where am I recreating or being unconsciously drawn into the same space that is actually a retreat or drawing back, and when am I sitting with them in the space of opening and possibility? In every moment there is going to be a flow between these experiences to a varying degree. How can we start to support a client expand their felt and embodied experience of space so that it can be developed within them?
This is the art of human attunement and interaction. It is an alchemy and it involves the therapist as much as the client. This is what I believe can turn difficult and out dated, narrow trauma responses into expanded, multi dimensional embodied inner resourcing. That is the work of craniosacral therapy.
When do people seek help?
Many people often only examine their internal landscape when they can't take any more. They're desperate. Nothing has helped. This often looks like:
Shut down (flight) - Fleeing from themselves, Avoiding their own emotions
Life seems to stop: there's a pervading feeling of numbness and disconnection or inability to really connect with others or their own children. They watch people laughing and wonder why they don't feel the same joy. Sometimes they act to pretend it's there but it never quite feels real to them. Their body doesn't get a look in, it's almost like it's not there with them. Emotional responses are buried and suppressed. Life is lived from the mind, intellectualising every move.
Explosion (fight) - Fighting themselves, internally battling, polarising
Life gets unpredictable: it starts to feel like a series of blows to the stomach. It's one thing after the other, a loss, a failure, an insurmountable challenge, a stuckness that won't shift. There's an inability to cope with what feels like a mountain of stuff. There's a feeling of needing change but not knowing how to get it. Emotional responses are usually outbursts that then create further explosions leading to illness.
The above is simple. It's the flight or fight response that people are used to referencing but actually don't often recognise within themselves - because it's happening all the time, on a spectrum.
When we shut down, the body is in flight. But it's not running away from something, it's running away from itself.
How can craniosacral therapy help?
A craniosacral therapist works with both the physical and the emotional realm of a client's lived experience. This includes the obvious and the subtle, the seen and the unseen. It needs to also include the known and the unknown. The unknown is what is yet to be revealed to that person through their embodied experience. It is unknown because the therapist themselves, cannot know.
At a physical level, attending to basic spinal integrity, fluid flow and organ vitality a person's entire body can be brought back into balance. Sympathetic charge can be reintegrated so that it doesn't overwhelm leading to a fight or flight. I use my hands to facilitate vertebrae which might be restricted, to lengthen fascia which has become compressed, to restore proper movement to bones at the base of your cranium or in your neck to release any nerve impingements that are affecting your body etc and much more. But this is just one aspect.
There is always an emotional component held in physical patterns of the body. By bringing clients into a space where they are able to see, feel, touch emotions which have been inaccessible to them, they are able to regain a lost sense of connection with their emotional world. By bringing in the feelings, which are often fear, grief, sadness, anger, etc, a new relationship can be established.
Rather than wishing their sense of hopelessness away, a client becomes aware of how they relate to hopelessness - maybe they hold it tight and bring it in every time they get a tough challenge to do at work, maybe it relates to something a teacher told them when they were young - we can't make the feeling of hopelessness disappear - it's just a feeling, but when we change our relationship with it, that's when it becomes a super power. Hopelessness can therefore be a pathway to other feelings such as hope, self belief and empowerment.
A deep sense of empowerment is what I try to evoke in each of my clients. For a client to no longer be ashamed of their sadness but to be able to also feel within it, the compassion they are capable of, means they can allow themselves when they need to, to be sad. Sadness can be there, but it's no longer dominating their life experience
Through Craniosacral work, the body-mind-spirit relationship is revisited. Clients often leave feeling more able to cope with the same triggers that arise without becoming overwhelmed or reverting to an old behaviour pattern because fundamentally their nervous system has been able to re-learn and re-experience safety and holding. Their relationships often improve as they become more spacious and allowing within themselves, of differences in others, and that they feel like they have more inner strength to bring to their life. A deep sense of empowerment is what I try to evoke in each of my clients.
Some feedback has been:
'I could explore and face my inner demons. I am now more self-aware than ever before.' 'The session was able to assist a change in how I relate to myself.'
'Learning what my body is capable of will stay with me forever'
'I learned how to listen and heal my body and mind.'
'The whole process has been bringing me an inexplicable amount of inner peace and calmness I have not experienced before.'
If you're interested to try a session because you want to resolve your trauma, or know someone that could benefit please contact me on my website or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I work in North London and Mayfair. All our work together is confidential.