Sunday, February 8, 2009

Does our body need coaching?

Insight on the influence of osteopathy on trauma.
By Tom Meyers, Osteopath

Among its many effects, trauma can cause a freeze lock in the reptilian brain that blocks people’s access to their full potential and reduces them to survival mode. Through osteopathy treatment – in particular the cranio-sacral approach - the conditions associated with this downshifting can be lifted, restoring full use of the rational and emotional brain.

No joy in life, apathy, self-centeredness, dissociation, disrupted relationships, chronic fatigue, pain, irritability, easily angered, distress, not coping, overwhelm, feeling locked / blocked, back or neck-ache, upset stomach… We know the emotional effects of trauma but there are other conditions which are as much part of the aftermath of trauma but that are less well known. Trauma has an effect on the whole person - not only our emotions but our entire body, mind and spirit.

Trauma is not only an emotional shock following a stressful event or physical injury, it can also be induced by change. Any change in life can cause stress even those changes that we welcome in our lives: a new job, moving home, a new relationship, retirement, birth of a child… Not only actual change but also anticipated change can cause the body to suffer, resulting in anxiety but also physical conditions like stomach ache, stiffness / rigidity, various kinds of back pain (constant or variable), to give but a few examples.

On top of all this, the world around us is changing fast and keeping up seems to be a constant challenge to which we need to adapt.

One can therefore say that the experience of trauma ailments is caused through an accumulation of stressors over time. So although individual incidents will not always leave us scarred, the unrelenting stream of ‘aggressors’ will have a cumulative impact, both psychologically and physically.

Whether the cause is emotional, physical or environmental, the impact of trauma will reverberate throughout the body-mind-spirit unit. Trauma is a message that is perceived as undermining our survival. When the critical point has been reached, a freeze lock can be installed that can persist and infect our whole being.

To understand the trauma mechanism it is worth exploring the neurological angle, in particular the triune brain. The triune brain is a model proposed by Paul D. MacLean to explain the function of traces of evolution existing in the structure of the human brain. In this model, the brain is broken down into three separate brains that have their own special intelligence, subjectivity, sense of time and space, and memory. The triune brain consists of the R-complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex.

The R-complex, also known as the "reptilian brain", includes the brain stem and cerebellum. It is called the "reptilian brain" because a reptile's brain is dominated by the brain stem and cerebellum, which controls instinctual survival behaviors and thinking. This brain controls the muscles, balance and autonomic functions.

The limbic system is the source of emotions and instincts. It comprises the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus. The limbic system must interact with the neocortex in some way - it cannot function entirely on its own: it needs to interact with the neocortex to process the emotions.

The neocortex, also known as the cerebral cortex, is found in the brain of higher mammals and is responsible for higher-order thinking skills, reason and speech.

These three brains each have a different biochemistry, respond differently to impulses and have a different disposition. Although all three must work together towards a genuine output, under certain circumstances a particular ‘brain’ is dominant. For example, in anger - which is linked to the reptilian brain - rational thinking is often impeded. When we come out of our rage and recover our intellectual capacities, we often wonder why we did or said certain things. While in the grip of rage, we were unable to think and reacted completely on instinct. Only when we calm down can we be rational again.

Both emotions and stress / trauma have a tendency to override reason, logic or intellect and therefore have an impact on the functioning of the triune brain. Most of this influence subsides when the stressors or emotions are no longer present, but it can persist when there is an accumulation of stress or when the body is no longer capable of processing the data coming in. When this happens, the system freezes or locks.

Leslie Hart called this freeze hold ‘downshifting’. When we downshift, we operate in a lower, more primitive and instinctual way. We are no longer able to access our full intellectual capacities and we no longer see what is really out there. We are also less able to engage in complex tasks, preferring to stay with the familiar, tried and tested mode of functioning, staying in our ‘comfort zone’. We are no longer coping, we feel overwhelmed by events. This can be seen as regressing to a more primitive state of being - primitive to the point that our instinct is activated towards its one primary goal: survival. The reptilian brain is also called the survival brain and when we are fixed in this system, extra stimuli can be experienced as threatening – although the threat is of course subconscious as our rational brain is out of reach.

In short, when we are locked in a downshift we are functioning robotically with the sole purpose of surviving. The more stimuli we are faced with, the more overwhelmed and stressed we become and in these circumstances we tend to stick to routine rather than find new solutions to overcome a problem. We can also become apathetic, dissociated, self-centered, irritable… But also, when stressed the mind will become focused on the stressor. We can’t think of anything else as rationality is cut off and we become mentally rigid. When this lock persists, the body also becomes stiff, with the most common symptoms being back, neck or shoulder pain.

Other symptoms described by people in this reptilian brain freeze lock is that they cannot engage in activities like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, working out or other pastimes they had done before. They commonly report feeling caged or walled in. They see that something is not right but can’t seem to do anything about it.

Does our body need coaching? As an osteopath people come and see me because they are suffering from one or more physical conditions like back pain or other musculo-skeletal problems. When probing more deeply through the patient’s history, we have most often discovered, lurking behind these physical symptoms, a series of apparently unrelated psycho-emotional conditions or traumas that then move to the foreground. My interest in these non-physical problems has been piqued when, on the next visit, the patient reports having experienced an improvement. So, through an osteopathic treatment, not only did they get rid of their back pain and other ailments, but at the same time they felt they functioned better. When asked if they related this psycho-emotional improvement to the treatment, they were all 100% convinced. They could focus better, felt less stressed even when their external conditions had not changed, and they were also able to engage in their leisure activities again…

As part of my osteopathic treatment, I use the cranio-sacral technique in conjunction with musculo-skeletal, abdominal, fascia techniques and so on. Osteopathy is a holistic approach and the osteopath interweaves the different approaches into a treatment designed for each individual. So although a different set of manipulations is performed for each patient, the approach is very similar.

I believe that it is this cranio-sacral part of the treatment that makes the greatest difference in improving the psycho-emotional condition of the patient. That being said, the entire treatment is necessary, because the whole body must interact with the cranio-sacral process if it is to work.

In the cranio-sacral approach, the osteopath tunes into the client’s cranio-sacral system through the hands. By gently working with the skull and its cranial sutures, diaphragms, and fascia, the restrictions of nerve passages are eased, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid through the spinal cord is optimized, and misaligned bones are restored to their proper position. It now also seems that this has a direct influence on the triune brain and its functions.

After treatment, patients have expanded from their survival mode into normal functioning. In the words of one client: “I still have the same amount of stress but I don’t let it get to me.” He could accept his situation rationally.

I have no clinical proof of my arguments here, other than the testimonials of my patients and my own observation that osteopathy - and more specifically the cranio-sacral approach - has lifted the downshifting in these cases, allowed the patients to re-access their potential.

It doesn’t always stop there, either. In some cases it was also the start of recognition that further help in the psycho-emotional domain was needed. With continued osteopathic follow-up in conjunction with more mind-oriented therapies, clients have found their feet again, free from pain and psycho-emotional stable, creative, energetic, ready to face changes. Most of all they are happy.

Does our body need coaching? It seems it does help!