CST and Stress
This is the text of a talk on PTSD given by Cathy Cremer to a forces audience in Portsmouth
I'm here to talk about CST and why it can be helpful for those suffering from operational stress reaction.Am I allowed to say trauma? PTSD? Or shall we just say when a combination of things have happened to throw us off balance and we know that our health and reactions to day to day events aren't as good as they used to be.
Craniosacral therapy - which I'm going to call CST from now on because it's a bit of a mouthful otherwise - is a hands-on therapy which assists the body's natural capacity for self-repair. The name can be a bit distracting - 'cranio' refers to the head or cranium and sacral to the sacrum, the big bone at the base of the spine.Maybe a better way to think of it is 'top to bottom, as it's a therapy that treats the whole body in each session.
The body is designed to protect itself from physical knocks or emotional stress by contracting. If the shock is particularly severe, prolonged or accompanied by strong emotions, everything stays contracted, even after the moment that caused the shock is over. There's a reason for this.
You've probably all heard of the Fight or Flight reaction. When we're stressed by anything, our body reacts automatically to protect us, getting us ready to meet danger and quickly flooding us with energy. If we aren't able to release that energy by either fighting or fleeing, the body's next option is to tremble or shake. This is an unconscious reaction and is a clever and instinctive way all animals, whether human or four-legged, can quickly get rid of energy they don't need.
Depending on the level of fright we've experienced to trigger the fight or flight reaction, this shaking may be quite visible and if we're in a situation where we need to 'be brave', we will do our best to hide or control that shaking. Controlling it keeps it on board and brings us to the fourth and final stress response which is to freeze. These last two reactions leave us with a lot of undischarged energy trapped in our body. Because our system only recognises that the threat has gone when all that energy has gone too, if we've got lots of unreleased energy in our system it makes our body think we're still in danger, so it carries on releasing energy. Finally, it realises that we're in overload and goes into shut down. It’s like driving with your foot down hard on the accelerator and then slamming on the brake with the engine still revving. It’s not good for the car.
PTSD is thought to happen when the body and mind have not yet realised that a traumatic event is over, and so we keep on the pressure and responding as if we're still in danger.
When we’re children, we have a great way of dealing with stressful situations. Have a massive tantrum. Whether it’s a physical shock - falling over and grazing a knee - or an emotional one - not getting the sweets or the comic with a plastic toy on it - children have absolutely no problem expressing their pain, anger and disappointment - fully, loudly, and if necessary on the supermarket floor. This attracts attention, and we reassure the child if they’re hurt and use physical touch to comfort them, give them a hug, rub the knee or kiss it better. Or if it’s a tantrum about a comic or sweets we don’t want to buy, we carry on shopping while we let them ‘get it out of their system’.
As adults, we’re taught and sometimes actively trained, NOT to attract attention to how we’re feeling and to take every shock IN to the system - which in fact means taking it into the body and keeping it there. But if tensions, stresses and strains from a perfectly natural physical reaction get stuck in the body, they can restrict the way it functions and lead to problems which may show up immediately, or over the following years. These effects may be physical - such as back pain, migraine, digestive problems - emotional, - such as insomnia, anxiety or depression - or a combination of both.
When I talk about shock it doesn’t have to be the big stuff either, I mean anything that causes our heart to speed up or which makes us feel uncertain or unable to cope with the situation we’re in, because that’s what starts our body getting into fight or flight mode.
The difference between this deeply-held internal tension and the kid with the grazed knee, is that we can’t SEE the area which needs a helping hand, so CST therapists are trained to FEEL it using a very light touch approach and creating a comfortable state where the body feels safe enough to let go of its tensions, relax and start to self-correct.
As this stored up tension, that you may not be even aware is there, is released, it lets the energy that was holding everything tightly in place to be put to better use. It may also be an opportunity for the body to let out a bout of shaking or trembling that was repressed some time in the past and even though this may feel weird at the time, it’s a good, healthy reaction to show your body is letting go of something it no longer needs. This allows your whole system to start to self-correct and function better, which can make you feel better about yourself, so your mental and emotional levels start to improve too.
What makes CST particularly useful in working with trauma, is that with this therapy it’s your body - rather than your mind - that sets the priorities and the pace of work. In my experience, this means it’s possible to move beyond past events without having to “relive” them. It’s a little bit like opening a bottle of coke when we know it’s been shaken up - if we do it slowly and by paying attention to just how fizzy it is, it won’t explode all over us.
Treatment is very easy to receive - you lie fully clothed on a treatment table while the therapist makes a light contact with their hands. Try thinking of a vase on a table with a tablecloth on it. If you closed your eyes and pulled a corner of the tablecloth, you’d have a good idea of where the vase was, even if you couldn’t see it. The therapist isn’t going to be pulling you, but you get the idea. Because they’re sensing what’s going on in your whole body, the contact can be anywhere - it may be at your head or under your back, it may be at your feet, they may move around or stay in one place. Each therapist has their own approach. During a session you may become aware of heat, tingling, pulsations or other sensations in your body, and often a deep sense of relaxation.
I talked earlier about our bodies freezing and leaving us with a lot of trapped tension. Imagine an ice cube. It started off as soft, easy- flowing water but it was put in a rather stressful situation in a freezer, and now it looks and feels quite different. If you put it on your hand though, it doesn’t take long before it starts to warm, soften and melt. It returns completely to its original state.
We have a built in capacity to recover from overwhelming experiences, what CST does is harness and encourage the body’s ability to do just that.
Thank you for listening.