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Craniosacral Therapy & Resolving PTSD in children

by Mia on July 25, 2011


This article outlines the difference between simple trauma and PTSD, which is ongoing, and details common symptoms, as well as the physiological and emotional effects of PTSD.  It also looks at how craniosacral therapy can address the physiological and emotional symptoms of PTSD and assist in resotring the child to normal life.


What is trauma?

Ordinary trauma may involve threat to physical life, or to psychological survival. The world that was taken for granted may be shattered. The nervous system becomes overwhelmed, and shuts down. Following the trauma, children may initially show agitated or confused behavior.  They also may show intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial. These are normal reactions. Normally the physical reactions that kick in as a result of the fear will die down within a few hours. Sometimes the stress may take up to a year to dissipate.

How is PTSD different?

But for some people it never goes away. A child or adolescent who experiences a catastrophic event may develop ongoing difficulties known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD in children and adolescents occurs as a result of a child’s exposure to one or more traumatic events that were life-threatening or perceived to be likely to cause serious injury to self or others. In addition, the child must have responded with intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Traumatic events can take many forms, including physical or sexual assaults, natural disasters, traumatic death of a loved one, or emotional abuse or neglect.

Symptoms of PTSD

Children  with PTSD avoid situations or places that remind them of the trauma. Children who experience repeated trauma may develop a kind of emotional numbing to deaden or block the pain and trauma. This is called dissociation. They may also become less responsive emotionally, depressed, withdrawn, and more detached from their feelings.

Children with PTSD may also show the following symptoms:

•                having frequent memories of the event, or in young children,  play in which  some or all of the trauma is repeated over and over

•                having upsetting and frightening dreams

•                acting or feeling like the experience is happening again

•                worry about dying at an early age

•                losing interest in activities

•                having physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches

•                showing more sudden and extreme emotional reactions

•                having problems falling or staying asleep

•                showing irritability or angry outbursts

•                 having problems concentrating

•                acting younger than their age (for example, clingy or whiny behavior, thumb sucking)

•                showing increased alertness to the environment

The symptoms of PTSD may last from several months to many years. They seem to occur more often in children who already have a history of poor emotional regulation from the parents, and poor attachment security. This will affect their ability to make sense of the trauma and to draw comfort from others.

Why early treatment of trauma is important

Once the trauma has occurred, however, early intervention is essential.  Support from parents, school, and peers is important.  Emphasis needs to be placed upon establishing a feeling of safety.  Psychotherapy (individual, group, or family) that allows the child to speak, draw, play, or write about the event is helpful. Craniosacral therapy can help release the trauma from the nervous system in a series of cycles, and build up the capacity to feel sensation, and feel safe in the body again. With time the emotional energy and memories of the experience can be fully integrated and normal life can resume.

Craniosacral treatment can help reconnect the child with emotions that have been stored in the body, can slowly release symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, improve the normal appetite for life and stabilize the emotions. Because craniosacral is such a gentle therapy, and practitioners tend to be extremely sensitive and finely tuned, this can be one of the few ways to reach a severely traumatised  and very frightened, speechless child and help them regain contact with here and now reality.

The sooner the child is treated the easier and faster the recovery is on the whole, and prevents further chemical imbalance in the body and brain changes. Once posttraumatic stress symptoms emerge, PTSD leads to neurophysiologic correlates that impact brain function in developing children and adolescents

Severe emotional trauma has widespread effects on children’s development. These effects include undermining children’s sense of security in a reasonable and safe world in which they can grow and explore, as well as causing a child to not believe that their parents can protect them from harm. The premature destruction of these beliefs can have profound negative consequences on development. In addition, a child with such experiences may spend most of their time worrying about whether they will survive at all, rather than actually living.

How Craniosacral can work directly on the effects of trauma in the brain

Craniosacral therapy can address the unconscious memories of trauma that are stored in the amygdala – the most primitive part -  of the brain. This is especially important for very small children since before age 3 their prefrontal cortex has not yet developed and they can only process trauma amygdala, rather than over-riding this with the orbito-frontal cortex, which has not yet fully developed. In addition, verbalizing activities of the left prefrontal cortex are important for making sense of traumatic memories. Being able to talk about and name shocking experiences helps come to terms with them. However this is not helpful for small children…

 The hippocampus, whose functioning in memory is negatively affected by trauma, is also required for processing feelings normally. Without these functions a child may get flashback states when a traumatic memory is relived because it has not been fully processed. Fortunately craniosacral therapy is sensitive enough to be able to detect separate areas of brain function or underactivity and by listening to what is going on, allow the system to re-establish an integrated working connection. It is also one of the few therapies able to work with the stubborn and inaccessible amygdala. This may take some time, especially with severe trauma, however the progress is often visible from the first session on, as soon as contact is made with the child’s core and soul, and a basic sense of safety and grounding in the body is established once again. Sometimes children can wait years for this to happen, and to an anxious parent; it may seem almost like a miracle when it does. Previous states are then quickly forgotten as life resumes again.

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