Physical symptoms can often be the result of mental or emotional distress, due to suppressed or unexpressed emotions like anger, fear, quilt, shame, loyalty, grief, unworthiness, anxiety and any beliefs that we may hold about ourselves, that attribute to our emotions.
This is known as somatisation, where the body somatises the emotional component of what has been going on for them. One of the strengths of Craniosacral therapy (CST) is releasing these trapped emotions through biodynamic emotional trauma release or also known as somatoemotional release. Here we allow any emotions to be expressed, to be felt, and complemented through verbal dialoguing, movement or sound (expressing the voice) as a natural way to release any stored life events, experiences and trauma’s from the bodily tissues. This is often experienced as liberating, freeing, deeply insightful and life changing.
CST addresses any kind of standalone acute physical symptoms and also addresses any physical symptoms that may have an emotional root at the core of their condition. Almost everything that we experience in life enters into our body through our connective tissue (fascia): physical stress, emotional stress or any force coming into the body will cause our tissue to react and contract. For instance, when we have an accident or a fall, not only the physical impact of that force but also the emotional effect like anger, pain, anxiety or fright, can enter into our tissue’s, depending on the strength of the impact and our capacity to deal with it at the time. Fascia is capable of retaining the memory of an injury or trauma, known as tissue memory. For example, if we see a cyclist coming towards us at full speed and we cannot jump back in time, then not only the physical force released by the collision of our body against the cyclist but also the emotional power of fear or anger will enter into our fascia. If this remains unresolved, it can be walled off and stored within the body, causing pain. Also, of equal importance, if we endured a physical impact during a particular emotional or anxious time in our life, that impact may be aggravated by the emotional tension that we already carried within us at the time. This can particularly be valid for people that seem to be slow in recovery, do not properly heal or experience a change in emotional behaviour on top of their pain. Often the reason this happens is due to the unresolved emotional tension and emotional charge, that they are still (subconsciously) carrying in their body.
CST also addresses any kind of mental or emotional condition that has a traumatic or emotional root at the core of the condition. When we experience an adverse life experience or trauma (and most of us, do), the body has the capability to repress it from our consciousness and into our body. This often happens as a protective survival mechanism, as perhaps it was too painful or we did not have the resources or capacity to really understand what was going on and act accordingly. An intelligent innate response from the body, as a defence mechanism, is to shut it down and hid it away in the body. We can often remain driven by these emotional patterns and beliefs patterns, without being fully aware of it (see addiction blog).
We can also hide things in our body and out of our conscious awareness, when we don’t want feel or deal with our emotions. CST has been at the root of healing many of my own physical and emotional conditions. One emergency operation left me leaving the intensive care unit minus one organ. I healed the scar tissue with CST but also the pain and the underlying emotion of anger. I was unaware I held that anger and that it was the anger that caused the pain to continue. When that anger boiled to the surface during a session, my therapist gently asked – what lies underneath that anger? My subconscious mind blurred: “the knife of the surgeon without my consent”. And just like that, it disappeared.
Weird? No not at all! I experience it all the time with my clients. Some clients are well versed in mind-body therapies and happily go down the road of inquisitive dialoguing during the treatment, be it for physical pain or emotional pain. Some clients purely come for physical pain and are often surprised when a memory or an emotion comes up, seemingly out of nowhere, that has been lying beneath the surface and out of their awareness for years, but often with great significance and in relation to their condition.
A client came to see me for headaches. During intake she expressed that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. She had been in talk therapy for a while, had made good progress and heard that Craniosacral could assist with her headaches and also release residual emotional elements of her trauma.
In Cranio we really learn to listen to the body through our hands, through the rich proprioceptors in our fingers. We can feel where the body is struggling or where it may be frozen, restricted, out of balance, in a holding pattern or open and flowing. As I was assessing her body through manual palpation, her tissues guided me to her liver and I rested my hands on her liver. I could feel the heat in her liver and the internal motility being out of sync and I sensed a lot of stored emotions. I stayed there, until I felt that the client had gone into parasympathetic nervous system safe mode. When I felt the tissues open, release and the clients craniosacral system ready, I gently asked: what is your liver holding? And before I could take another breath, she said: “anger, so much anger – he was my friend, I thought he would look after me, he was the one person I trusted”. As the anger and the heat was released from her liver, the liver wobbled and came back into unrestrictive functioning, as her tears simultaneously flowed. A perfect combination where she answered both verbally and somatically through her body.
For some people this may be enough for one session, ensuring it is rounded and complete for that session. Little by little and bit by bit-which is known as titration in somatic work. With other people we may be able to take it bit further, this is always assessed in the moment and how the body and the craniosacral system responds. If for instance a client has gone back into sympathetic stress response, into arousal or overwhelm, we would not go any further or even discuss the trauma but purely stay with bringing the client back into a grounded and well-resourced state.
In this particular case the client was grounded, resourced and established in talk therapy. As I further assessed and followed the new movement generated by her body, my hands palpated her sphenoid bone and found their way in particular to her frontal bone and eye sockets. I could feel tissue oscillations, twists and side bends going on beneath my hands. I had no idea what was about to unfold but when I gently asked about the sensations around her eyes and eye sockets, she delved into a deeper understanding that during the assault she had been very drunk, practically in a comatose state and had been unable to keep her eyes open. This made sense as through palpations her tissues had led me to her liver and eyes as the source of her headaches. I dived into some further dialoguing with her to ensure she was not triggered back into the event and in a subsequent session, she was able to express, to safely feel and to release the trapped emotions. She returned fully and completely to life as she had known it, headache free.
Putting it all together
As craniosacral therapists, we often experience that physical and emotional releases take place simultaneously, as the physical body and emotional body are inextricably linked. Emotions can lie at the core of any pain. Our memory may have been suppressed, our mind may have forgotten, but the body remembers. Keeping memories, experiences and emotions beneath the surface comes at a cost, often through pain, anger, unhappiness, restlessness, addiction, anxiety or irritability. It also takes a lot of energy to keep things repressed and frozen. CST is an excellent therapy to release suppressed emotions and tensions that have resulted from physical or emotional trauma, through physical touch, verbal dialoguing and emotional release. Fascia carries our emotional tension with a certain charge in our body, once these supressed emotions are allowed to come up and released, symptoms can be dealt with and resolve.
As one of my client’s wrote in her testimonial on expressing trauma through the body: “I was suffering from involuntary muscle movements & cognitive short circuiting. My doctor found nothing wrong with me; sadly, not all health professionals are trauma informed. Craniosacral has been invaluable; treatments are non-invasive yet powerful. My mind, body and life are back on track now, I am forever grateful. And there is absolutely no need to feel self-conscious about your symptoms, I think she has seen it all”.
The first part described how trauma and our biological stress responses are implicated in all addictions and the benefit of CST. In this second part we will look at the addicts brain and the relevance and importance of working with the brain in CST, as it is rewarding, life changing and totally underestimated in the inclusion of any kind of holistic treatment, be it for trauma, addiction, chronic pain, insomnia or concussion. There are so many bones, cranial nerves, glands, membranes, sutures and cranial foramina - openings that allow passage of cranial nerves, tissues and blood vessels to go through - to work with, with far reaching implications, when there is any kind of dysfunction in the cranium. It is important that all structures in the cranium are functioning properly, in order to maintain optimal function and general health. In my clinics I see clients with all kinds of addiction: from alcohol, work, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, opioids, behavioural to food addiction, sometimes all combined in one, well almost.
All addictions use the same brain systems and chemicals, creating an altered physiological state, to escape emotional and mental pain, anger, anxiety, deep-seated fear, feeling powerless, less than, loneliness and disconnection. Addiction engages the brains reward (endorphins) system, the reinforcement-motivation (dopamine) system and the brains executive functions, where impulse control and self-regulation lies.
The three dominant brain systems involved in addiction are:
1. The Endorphins (Opioid) System - Attachment-reward system
Endorphins are our natural opiates and feel-good chemicals, produced inside the brains pituitary gland. They are our natural pain reliever for stress and discomfort and play a key role in how we react to both physical and emotional pain, as they calm the nervous system, slow down muscle contraction in the gut and diminishes saliva secretion in the mouth. Endorphins are released during rewarding activities like eating, exercise, work or sex. Endorphins are responsible for the pleasure-reward seeking behaviours that stimulates the addiction, as our brain rewards us when we engage in something that brings us pleasure, reduces pain, triggers the chemistry of love and connection and results in a feeling of general wellbeing.
Endorphins also play a critical role in the emotional bonding between parent and infant and forms the basis of our attachment system. Attachment is the biological impetus for physical and emotional closeness with firstly our parents and later on with other people. When we grow up in a functional household, receive attentive care, nurturing and loving responses, our brain gets flooded with endorphins. Young children who did not receive nurturing love and attentive presence to boost their internal chemical happy hormones are often also not able to self-regulate as well and rely on external dopamine hits. Secure attachment may be difficult when you have been hurt in your primary relationship. You may long to connect and to belong but any form of closeness or intimacy may pose too much of a threat to the nervous system and brain. They will try to escape their distress and are at greater risk for seeking chemical or behavioural satisfaction from external sources in life, as our early attachment style drives a lot of our behaviour and impulse control. Overall, the less effective our own internal chemical happiness is, the more driven we are to seek joy or relief through addictions or other compulsions that are perceived as rewarding and boosts our endorphins levels to receive that hit.
2.The dopamine apparatus - Incentive – motivation system
The brains incentive-motivation system controls our motivation and pleasure by releasing dopamine when we initiate in pleasure seeking and life-sustaining activities like eating, sex, forming new partnerships, exploring and engaging in new activities. Incentive feelings like desire, wanting and craving are all central to increasing dopamine levels and key to the reinforcing patters of addictions. As dopamine levels are increased, it will motivate us to do it again as it makes us feel more energised, inspired, focussed and happier. Addiction elevates dopamine in the reward circuit. Speed, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, porn, eating all tap directly into this system by flooding the reward circuit with dopamine. When we have learned for instance, that eating a chocolate bar or candy makes us feel good and is pleasurable - the likelihood of doing it again is greater,especially when we lack other self-regulation practices. Dopamine release is triggered in a brain center called the nucleus accumbens, located on the underside of the front brain, and plays a major component in the incentive circuit. graphic Sarah Huges - thesagon.online
Food, sex, novelty seeking behaviour, intense exercise all trigger dopamine release in the NA. Research shows that the existence of relatively few developed or damaged dopamine receptors may be one of the biological bases of addictive behaviours, as we are driven to make up for any loss of dopamine activity. Consistent dopamine releases causes our brain to create new neural pathways leading to desensitisation. The nucleus accumbens also acts as a liaison with the limbic system, which is also known as the emotional brain.
The limbic system consist oa of the Hippocampus (memory conversion) and Amygdala (emotion). The limbic system interprets thoughts, feelings and processes our emotions like love, joy, pleasure, pain, anger and fear. It determines whether we go towards something or away, it makes it possible to feel love, compassion and to have healthy social interactions. When properly developed our emotional brain is a reliable guide to life. When impaired or confused - it can trouble us and addictions is one of its main dysfunctions.
3. The Self-regulation circuits
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) sits in the front of our front brain, acting like the CEO with highly specialised functions like complex planning, problem solving, decision making, impulse control, rational judgement, balancing short-term vs long term consequences and inhibiting harmful impulses.
Gabor Maté describes in his excellent book – In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts - studies that link addiction to a specific centre of the prefrontal cortex – the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC has an abundant supply of opioid and dopamine receptors and is responsible for inhibiting inappropriate action and helping to postpone reward seeking behaviour, both not functioning well in addicts.
Of interest and linking why it is so important to work with trauma and the brain, is that neurological traces of early formative events are embedded in the OFC. The emotional traces of psychological and physical trauma/abandonment are encoded in nerve patterns in the OFC, including experiences you cannot consciously recall (implicit memories). The brain structures to conscious recall develop during the first years of life but aspects of the implicit memory system which stores emotional memories are present at birth, priming the OFC unconsciously, as it interprets stimulus through the lens of its experiences.
Maté further describes how through its connections with the limbic system, the OFC serves as its mission control room for our emotional lives. The OFC receives input from all our sensory area’s - vision, touch, taste, smell and sound and regulates how we process our emotions and how we react to them, based on past and present experiences. The OFC decides the emotional value of a stimuli and its personal meaning, our likes, dislikes, preference or aversion and decides in a micro second, what we focus on. The Prefrontal cortex is often impaired as a result of life experiences, leading to poor impulse control when it is highly activated during cravings disrupting self-regulation circuits.
CST and the Brain
In CST we feel, listen and work with all the structures in and around the brain – below the main ones implicated in addiction:
Pituitary gland (the master gland –producing endorphins) is located inside the sella turcica of the sphenoid bone. In CST we assess for any cranial base dysfunctions – between the occipital bone and sphenoid bone. There can be torsion, side-bending or lateral strains imposed upon this area with clinical significance. It is important that the sphenoid bone is able to move optimally, with no lesions within the cranium in order to maintain its subtle movement to optimise the release of hormones.
All the above described brain structures are rich and important sources for CST, as the brain can start to initiate its own healing process by creating change in thought processes, wiring, emotions and behaviour. CST is no quick fix and attending other recovery programs is vital too. The pain that runs far back, runs deep. It takes time, dedication, recognition, effort and a real desire in wanting to change. One day at a time.
Part 3 – The Addicts physiology and bodily symptoms