I hate new age, woo-woo therapies. One of the biggest reasons for this hate is that I practice a new age, woo-woo therapy, maybe the wooiest. I am a craniosacral practitioner and while I feel that it is an incredibly powerful tool for change and healing, it is also consistently thought of as magic. You may find my description hyperbolic, particularly if you have never had any experience with craniosacral work or practitioners, but I assure you, it is not. I have had one of my colleagues tell me that they thought they were channeling the healing power of God into their patients. It’s talk like that that tends to make a science minded skeptic like myself go a little crazy. While I could go on about dozens of aspects of craniosacral work that foster such a mindset, for the sake of brevity, I will discuss only one of the many bizarre phenomena that one learns to live with when they do craniosacral work. This is the phenomena of somato-emotional release.
Just in case you’ve never heard of craniosacral therapy, here’s the elevator pitch. There are several biologic rhythms in the body, such as the pulse and respiration. Practitioners, such as myself, lay our hands on our patients to tune into these rhythms and use them to release restrictions in the body. While its roots lay firmly in the realm of bodywork, the touch needed for this work is so gentle, and its effects often so profound, that many have taken to calling it “energy work”, a term so vague and meaningless that it drives me up the wall. Little is understood about how this therapy even works, which compounds the problem. Craniosacral tends to access the mind-body connection in many patients, sometimes provoking an emotional response from the treatment, also known as somato-emotional release.
The common belief about how this happens is the theory that emotional trauma can become somehow “locked” in the structure of the body causing physical manifestations, such as back pain, head aches, stomach cramps and the like. When a bodyworker, such as myself, works with the part or parts of the body which have trapped these emotions, these emotions are released, often effecting an improvement in the patient. I am keeping my description brief for the sake of this article, but also because there are people who have a far better understanding of this than I do.
Quite a while back, a woman came to see me to address her low back pain. At the time, I had been doing bodywork for several years and treating low back pain was my bread and butter. I have found that the vast majority of people with low back pain have physical restrictions at three to five areas of the body, but that’s an article for another time. We’re not here for an anatomy lesson. Initially, this woman appeared to be an uncomplicated case. In her thirties and essentially healthy, she denied any past surgeries, conditions, medication and traumas beyond what any of us incur in a normal life. I did my physical exam, and still not finding anything unusual, I began to address the restrictions that I did find.
These restrictions were minor, certainly nothing that would cause the debilitating pain that she described to me. A part of my mind screamed that something more was going on, another part told me that I should focus on her neck; I ignored both parts, my logical side drowning them out with thoughts of sacral restrictions and short psoas muscles. It took me three sessions, with almost no change in her condition, for me to figure out I was doing something wrong. Shortly after our third session, she called me in obvious distress, telling me that the pain was so bad she couldn’t even stand. Both of us felt that I had failed her and I offered to refer her to someone else, but, when she realized that it may take weeks to get into another office, she returned to me for one more visit.
Some of my patients have called the work that I do induced meditation. They deny going to sleep, but report several interesting experiences. The feeling that they are floating above their body, seeing visions, reliving past memories, experiences that I can’t completely explain, but that one becomes used to after a few years of hearing patients go on about them. Certain techniques foster this experience more than others and I pulled one of these out of my tool box. Every time I had worked on this woman, something in the back of my brain kept telling me to focus on her neck. Because of my skeptical nature, I prefer to rely on logical conclusions and my intuition is not always listened to. That’s the only excuse I have for how long it took me to trust this inner voice, but now I was willing to try anything. In what turned out to be a 90-minute session, I was essentially cradling her neck for half of that time.
While, to an outside observer, it would appear that I am doing little to nothing during this time, I feel a great deal happening during these sessions. Tens of micro motions that change moment to moment and me trying to keep up with them all, making sure I can help guide and integrate the most minor of changes. This takes a fair amount of focus and concentration and, if I am to be quite honest, I often close my eyes to maximize my sense of touch. It was during the moment that I opened my eyes to check in with my patient that I saw her, eyes open and tears streaming down her face. I knew right away I had triggered a somato-emotional release. I asked her if she was okay, if she needed a break, a drink of water. She didn’t answer me and her eyes never stopped looking at the ceiling. I couldn’t even begin to guess at what she was seeing. After a few minutes of her quietly weeping and me just doing my best to support her in that space, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the table.
I asked her a few more times how she was doing. Still not looking at me, she said, “It’s amazing what anger can do.” She offered little else beyond this cryptic statement. An “I’m fine” and “thank you” made up the bulk of her conversation as she paid for the treatments and left, never to return. I was terrified at what I may have unleashed. Did I help her or did I burden her with a past trauma that had been locked away for a very good reason? Such is the quandary I’ve always felt around somato-emotional release. While it is a powerful tool for healing, just like any tool, if not used with care, it can damage as well. It didn’t help my discomfort any that this had happened to me before.
Years before I had my own practice, when I was a relative newbie working at another clinic, I had a disturbingly similar experience. Another young, healthy woman, this one in her mid-twenties, came to see me for a “scalp massage”. Her friends had insisted she should see me for a craniosacral treatment, but it was obvious that she had no idea what I did or why her friends thought the work would benefit her. At first I tried to dissuade her from the treatment; I had had enough people unhappy with such an unfamiliar modality that I prefer working on those who know what craniosacral work is. She was unperturbed and, evidently, her friends had spoken so highly about my work that she insisted, so I acquiesced. During her intake, she described herself as the picture of health; no past injuries or illnesses of note, no medications nor any surgeries. She didn’t even note any ongoing complaints that would indicate why she wanted me to treat her. She just wanted the session.
I’ve certainly treated healthy individuals for health maintenance reasons and she seemed healthy, so I decided to proceed. The treatment began splendidly. I went about my work finding minor restrictions, feeling her body release them, while she happily chatted away on my table, apparently oblivious to what her body was doing. Over the course of her chat, she related one piece of history that I wish I had known before I had started. She had just come back from Iraq about nine months ago. During her tour there, she had been knocked unconscious by an explosive device. She was diagnosed with a concussion, but recovered with no complications that she was aware of, so I tucked the information away in my head and continued my work. Near the end of her one-hour session, I was working on her head and established a hold that focused primarily on her frontal bone.
The effect it had on her was one of the most dramatic I had ever seen. She instantly went out, as if someone had flipped a switch. She had been talking away one moment and then lay there unconscious the next. I saw no discomfort and I felt her body continue to release restrictions, so I sustained the hold for a few more minutes and then released it. The moment I did, her eyes snapped open. She immediately asked how long she had been out in a voice that expressed absolute terror. She had been entirely unprepared for what happened and had no desire to share her experience. When she left, I felt like I had done her a disservice. I never saw that woman again.
Fortunately, that was not the case with the first woman. This would indeed be a horrible story if I left things on such an uncertain note. As it so happened, a few months after the crying woman had left my office, I ran into her while having lunch. It turned out that she lives in my neighborhood and she walked into the eatery that I happened to be at. Once she saw me, she gave me an enthusiastic greeting and insisted on buying my lunch. I begged her to tell me what had happened when she left my office.
She told me that while she was on my table, her mind kept showing her fight after fight that she had been having with her significant other. As it turned out, they were in the process of breaking up and she hadn’t thought that it was connected in any way to her back pain. While on the table, she described an epiphany in which she realized that her pain was a manifestation of the intense anger she felt towards her boyfriend during their contentious split. It was a realization that created such a shift in her perspective that she felt unable to talk about it at the time, but she was able to integrate into her life over time. Not only did her pain go away completely, but she felt renewed enthusiasm for her work and was now in a new relationship that she felt was much more healthy.
Did this also happen with my other patient? Was her moment of terror merely a crisis of healing? I hope so with all my heart, but I realize that I may never know. These two examples are not the only ones that I have of somato-emotional release, but they are the most extreme, and the reason why do my best to treat the mind-body connection with the utmost respect. It still annoys me that craniosacral work is viewed as mystical, but given experiences like these, I understand how it inspires such feelings. I have put a great deal of time into trying to understand the physiologic mechanisms to logically account for what it is I am actually doing. I don’t feel as if I’ve gotten very far with that, but as long as I can help people out with my work, I will not begrudge the strangeness that goes along with it. Besides, sometimes I like telling people that I’m a wizard.