Lightning, PTSD, and Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy: My Journey to Healing
I came to the practice of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy because, in the summer of 2001, I was struck by lightning.
I was struck indirectly, while in my house. No one knows how the electricity surged into my body: through the air? Through the floor? All we know is that, somehow, it did. As my doctor told me when she examined me shortly afterward, “I think you got a good jolt.”
I was sitting in our house in Chicago, reading the Sunday comics as a July thunderstorm gathered, when I suddenly heard the loudest noise I have ever heard, apparently right over the house. Talk about the Big Bang! A small electric lamp across the room from me burst into flame — and the lamp wasn’t the only casualty. The lightning damaged our television and blew out our answering machine, the firewall on my husband’s computer, the landline phone in the kitchen, and our home security system.
It also – although I didn’t immediately know this – blew out my physical and emotional health. I had an abnormal heart rhythm (quite rapid, and impervious to medication) continuously for nine days; additionally, the shock damaged my immune system, so I fell prey to every little bug that came along until the following April. A quantitative EEG showed increased beta wave activity in my brain, which can be associated with stress and anxiety. I even came down – in August — with a slight case of pneumonia, something I had never had before, and have not had since.
The lightning also left me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is quite common in people who survive severe electrical shock. My symptoms included storm phobia (no surprises there); insomnia; a very twitchy startle reflex; irrational fears; irritability; chronic exhaustion; a continual state of hypervigilance, where I was continually monitoring my surroundings; and daily, often multiple, minor panic attacks. Additionally, the depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder that had been minor features in my life for years suddenly became major, almost crippling, ones.
The best word to describe me, as I was then, is “ruined.” I had become someone I no longer recognized.
My psychotherapist, a brilliant, kind, wise woman, did her best, and I made some progress, but it was limited. That was not her fault; it is simply the nature of PTSD. Talk therapy does little to help it, because trauma is not simply a matter of psychological processing. It is an intensely physical state. Peter A. Levine, author of Healing Trauma, writes:
“Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy…. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns…. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people… have become stuck in an aroused state.”
This is what happens with traumatized war veterans who have flashbacks every time they hear a helicopter thump-thumping overhead, or survivors of verbal and emotional abuse who freeze when they witness an argument. This is also what happened to me after the lightning: the blasting trauma of electrocution became stuck in my nervous system, putting me in a constant fight-or-flight state. When we are traumatized – and it’s inevitable that, at some point, we will be — it’s important to work through the fight or flight phase and return to a neutral state where we can “rest and digest.” It isn’t always a lion behind the tree; usually, it’s a mouse. In PTSD, though, it’s always a lion. That’s an exhausting, terrifying way to live, and it has enormous consequences for the body/mind.
This was my condition for about five years post-lightning. Eventually, my psychotherapist had a biodynamic craniosacral therapy (BCST) session with a gifted practitioner named Ginger Crisenbery in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. My therapist said the session was very emotionally calming. “Sign me up!” I thought, and made an appointment.
I had no idea what BCST was, and, at that point, was too desperate to care. I soon discovered that BCST is a very gentle form of bodywork. While the client lies fully clothed on a massage table, the practitioner (perhaps while holding the client’s head, shoulders, sacrum, or feet) attunes to the messages of the client’s body in a non-intrusive, non-manipulative way, allowing the client’s body to resolve tensions and restrictions. BCST helps to address imbalances in the body and bring the nervous system into balance. The work can be helpful for a long list of issues, such as asthma, autism spectrum disorders, sprains, strains, post-surgical issues, TMJ problems, depression, anxiety, and the effects of physical and emotional trauma and abuse.
Ginger had her hands full with me; I was her first (and, thus far, only) lightning client, and I was a mess. She immediately noticed that I seemed a bit shocky (forgive the pun), and showed a certain dissociative affect – as if I weren’t completely “there.” At first, she worked with my sacrum quite a bit (sacral work tends to be very settling and grounding). Eventually, she was able to branch out more in working with me.
Within a few weeks, I noticed a lifting of the oppressive emotional fatigue that had been with me for so long that I had accepted it as simply being the way I was. What a relief! I also began to see definite improvement in my sleep patterns, and my physical exhaustion started to lift. Within a couple of months, I even saw a marked reduction in my chronic asthma symptoms – something I had no idea would happen, but which actually is a common effect of BCST.
As I continued the sessions, other symptoms of PTSD began to fade. I felt progressively calmer and less anxious. My depression and irritability abated. The hypervigilance, irrational fears, and panic attacks went away, and I stopped twitching and jumping at every little noise. Increasingly, I felt more like myself and less like the damaged stranger I had become.
I had my life back.
So why did it work? We BCSTs think it has to do with the work’s effects on the nervous system – and that is where trauma is rooted. The autonomic nervous system has two main branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight” activation response; the parasympathetic nervous system controls the “rest and digest” recovery response.
In PTSD, the sympathetic nervous system, which is not designed to be continually in charge, is continually in charge; the parasympathetic nervous system becomes exhausted from its fruitless efforts to encourage rest and recovery. Because of that imbalance, we cannot get back to neutral, no matter how hard we try.
BCST got me back to neutral. In the words of Ged Sumner and Steve Haines, authors of Cranial Intelligence: A Practical Guide to Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, “The skilled awareness developed through giving and receiving craniosacral therapy is an incredibly powerful tool. We can access the tunes played by the inner orchestra of the body. The autonomic nervous system is a central player in the orchestra. The music is the felt sense, the emergence of emotions and intelligence from the physiology.”
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the music of BCST. As time went on, I developed an interest in doing the work myself, in addition to receiving it. When Ginger opened her own school, 3rdCoast Craniosacral, I was the first student to sign up for her first foundation training class. Three years later, I completed my 700-hour training and became a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist.
Along the way, I also earned a certificate in Lymphatic Biodynamics from Kathleen Morrow, RCST, of Manitou Springs, CO. This specialized form of manual lymphatic drainage (I may be the only person in the Midwest who practices it) has become a hugely important part of my work; a number of clients have found it extremely beneficial to combine lymphatic work with biodynamic work. Additionally, in 2014, my martial arts teacher, Master Hongchao Zhang of Chicago, awarded me a 6thduan (level) in Chi Gong. Teaching this beautiful form of meditation in movement has become the third major part of my practice, reSource Wellness, in Wilmette, IL. All the components of my practice are linked, addressing healing the nervous system and encouraging a calm, grounded state in the client. I believe I am now doing the work God wants me to do, and can honestly say that I’m grateful for my close encounter with lightning.
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