Trauma and the Body-Mind
Despite what many believe, memories and emotions do not solely reside in our higher brain exclusively. This is especially true in the case of trauma. Consequently, bodywork can cause emotions and memories that reside in the body to surface. This can be a difficult concept to comprehend. How can emotions and memories be triggered by bodywork? The answer is biology and physics.
Biology: We must first understand how our brain processes sensory input and how that changes during a traumatic event. All sensory input is received in the limbic or mid-brain. This control center takes the signals coming in from our ears, eyes, nose, taste buds, and other sensory nerves then routes them to the appropriate areas of the higher brain for interpretation and processing. During a traumatic event, the sensory input overwhelms the higher brain's ability to process. This is akin to your computer freezing-up. When this happens, the higher brain sends a signal to the limbic brain and the upward flow if sensory input is shut off. At that moment, the limbic brain activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze) which primarily involves the lower/reptilian brain. Once activated, all decision control originates in the reptilian brain--based on the flow of sensory input that it now receives.
The reptilian brain includes the the brain stem (the pons and medulla oblongata), spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system. This allows for continued motor function despite cerebral shut-down--to survive the trauma (fight or flight) if necessary. If movement is deemed not necessary, or the reptilian brain itself overwhelmed, then a freeze response ensues. Cognitive function is completely shut down, but the flow of sensory input continues to be received by the reptilian brain. These memories, diverted away from the higher brain, are consequently recorded elsewhere in the body--in the only other tissue known to be involved in cellular communication and have the ability to transmit electrical signals: Fascia.
This is an ingenious system that allows for our survival in extremely difficult situations. However, there is a flaw in the design: It's a one-way street. What I mean is that while the memories of sensory input can be sent from the limbic brain down to the reptilian brain, the flow cannot be reversed once the parasympathetic nervous system is reinstated and cognitive function restored. This leaves the primary memories of trauma out of our mind completely and, consequently, unavailable to cognitive approaches to therapy. While the events leading up to a trauma are recorded in the higher brain and cognitively available, the event itself is not. Knowing that its understanding of the event is extremely limited, the subconscious mind can create defensive mechanisms to insulate even events leading up to trauma from conscious recall. When these precipitory memories are uncovered during talk therapy, it can lead both psychotherapist and patient to believe that the trauma has been resolved.
Physics: Recent research in the field of Fascia Science has drastically increased our knowledge of fascia. Much of the gains are directly the result of advances in microscopic imagery technology. This has allowed us to see that fascia is actually composed of elements that are even smaller than our cells. This has revealed a relatively new concept to us, known as the Extra-Cellular Matrix, ECM. This ECM is composed of ground substance and loose collagenous microtubules. This ECM is what surrounds our cells--filling up what was previously referred to as, "Interstitial Space," or "empty space between our cells." Interestingly, this microtubule structure of the ECM and fascia occurs naturally in two other areas: The thought-processing areas of our brain (cerebrum) and in the processing chips for microcomputers.
This microscopic ECM is directly connected to macroscopic fascial structures. Our nerves actually terminate here, in fascia, rather than in "muscle" tissue. (Interestingly, as fascia surrounds every muscle, every bundle, and ever fascicle of muscle and then continues as the ECM down to surround every cell, it is technically impossible to separate muscle from fascia, thereby calling the very designation of "muscle" into question.) The fascia, then, carries the signals from the nerve endings to our cells, and vice-versa.
As mentioned previously, the flow of sensory input data to the fascia in times of trauma is one-way. However, when the fascia containing that data is stimulated, either by external physical input or by tissue activation, an active connection between the tissue and the nervous system is reestablished. This "reconnection" then has the potential of releasing the data recorded therein.
Release: Bodywork, especially that which addresses the fascia, can access the hidden memories from past trauma and open up a flow of emotions that can be unwelcome if not expected. Dr. Peter Levine, Ph. D., has written extensively about the storage of memories outside the brain and how releasing those memories from the body can bring deep and lasting healing. Recommended readings by him are: Waking The Tiger, North Atlantic Books, 1997; Healing Trauma, Sounds True, 2005, 2008; In An Unspoken Voice, North Atlantic Books, 2010. Additionally, an excellent voice of experience can be found at Radical Healing Blog .
Sexual Trauma and MFR
It is important to note that, as with all trauma, emotions and memories associated with sexual trauma can resurface during an MFR treatment session. This resurgence of emotion can be extreme depending on the original traumatizing experience. For this reason, it is important that all patients with a history of sexual trauma disclose this before treatment begins.*
In all cases of trauma, especially sexual trauma, it is important that the patient have a dedicated support network/structure in place to assist in the appropriate and safe processing of the emotions and resurfaced memories. This can be in the form of a psychotherapist, social worker, a pastoral counselor, etc. This brings more people into the therapeutic relationship and prevents the patient from feeling isolated, trapped, or otherwise powerless--and consequently re-traumatized.
Additionally, it is helpful to bring it to my attention if such emotions or memories arise during the session. I welcome and encourage the expression of emotion during the session. Doing so can have incredible therapeutic value. If necessary, however, a session can be paused or ended any time at the patient's request.
In general, when the patient does not inform a practitioner of such an emotional emergence, and the patient does not have adequate support to process the emotions properly, the affect can be re-traumatizing. In such a case, the emotions relating to a past trauma can be associated with the therapy that caused them to resurface. It can lead the patient to believe that, during the course of the session, the practitioner violated the therapeutic relationship. To verify any MFR techniques used during a session with me, I encourage patients to contact the Eastern MFR Treatment Center in Malvern, PA at 1-800-FASCIAL (327-2425).
*If you are a survivor of sexual trauma and do not feel as though you have an adequate support system in place, it is not advisable that you receive Myofascial Release or Cranial-Sacral Therapy. The combination of necessary hand placement required of the practitioner with the emotional confusion of a triggered traumatic experience can create the impression that the practitioner was inappropriate. This creates a liability which, as a practitioner, I must defend against. In such cases of Projective Identification, a patient can actually believe their mistaken perception to be true. No amount of precaution or prevention on the part of the practitioner can counteract that in court.