Hello, and welcome back!
Now that I’ve given you an idea about who I am as a practitioner and written a bit about the principles of CranioSacral Therapy, it’s time to move on and explore an especially fascinating aspect of CST: SomatoEmotional Release, or SER for short.
What is SER, you may ask?
It’s a process that people sometimes enter during a CST session. It involves the whole body (really, the body/mind/spirit/psyche, if we’re going to cover all our bases here) and is a way to release trauma that has been “walled off” in the body.
Why would trauma be isolated and stored in the body? Well, that’s generally not the body’s first choice. Given the ideal circumstances, any traumatic force entering the body tissues would be dissipated. This is not always possible, however, especially if there is an emotional component to the injury, so the body needs a “Plan B.” The walling off is the body’s way of minimizing the effect of the trauma so that the injured person can take care of life’s other, more pressing demands (like escaping danger, finding food and shelter, or taking care of dependents). Most of us can function for years this way due to our bodies’ unique ability to compensate. And often we need to function this way due to a lack of supportive resources, such as strong social ties and adequate time to rest and pay attention to self-care. Maybe we even “forget” the original trauma. But our bodies remember, and eventually the load may become greater than we can bear, causing symptoms such as pain, impaired mobility, and decreased energy levels.
Enter SER. This process occurs spontaneously during a CranioSacral Therapy session, when the inner wisdom of the person on the table recognizes that enough resources are present to release some or all of the held trauma. What does this look like? It’s different for everyone, of course, but there can be some common factors. Often (but not always), the body will begin to assume the same position it was in when the injury occurred. This can also be accompanied by associated memories, including those which have been out of conscious awareness for years or even decades. There may very well be overt emotional expression such as tears or laughter, but these are not necessarily a part of SER. Throughout the process, the therapist’s role is one of support, presence, and facilitation, as well as tracking changes in the body’s tissues. Sometimes, but not always, the therapist will work verbally with the client in order to develop a greater awareness of any images and sensations that might be relevant for resolving the presenting issue. At the end of the SER process, clients commonly report feeling a sense of relief, a reduction in pain, and feeling as though some sort of burden has been lifted, although details of individual experiences will differ.
Now that you have an idea about what SER is, I’d like to move on to what it isn’t. I’ve heard a number of misconceptions and myths about the process. Maybe you’ve even heard some of these, or wondered about them. If you’ve been hesitant to try CST because the idea of SER sounds scary or weird, I hope this information will help you make a more informed decision.
Myth #1: SER is something that can be done “to” me.
Actually, SER is not something the therapist “gives” the client, nor is the therapist the one in charge of the process. Remember, SER is a spontaneous process that happens during the course of a CST treatment. It can only happen in an atmosphere of trust, where the therapist maintains a neutral presence and has no agenda other than aligning with the client’s inner wisdom. You and your therapist both need to be on board with the process for it to happen.
Myth #2: If I’m interested in experiencing SER but don’t, it means I’m “resistant.”
The truth is that there can be any number of reasons that SER may not occur in a session, even when it may be of potential benefit. You may know that a pain you are experiencing has an emotional component, and you may suspect that this emotional component needs to be dealt with in order for your symptoms to resolve. However, there may be a part of you that is working very hard to keep things the way they are...after all, you’re still alive and functioning at a certain level, aren’t you? Rather than viewing this as resistance, I prefer to view it as protection. This part of you is looking out for you, making sure that it is safe to let go of whatever your body is holding onto before allowing that to happen. Protective parts of us are there for a reason, and we can usually negotiate with them to allow for healing to occur. When the time is right and enough resources are in place, this can happen in a safe and manageable way.
Myth #3: With SER, bigger is better. (Or, conversely, an authentic SER is always quiet and small).
If only it were so easy to judge the effectiveness of a session! Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all version of what SER should look like in order to be most helpful to any individual client. First of all, a CST session may be entirely structural and not involve SER at all. If that is what is needed, that is the best session that could possibly happen, period. If you feel dizzy and nauseated because your temporal bones are out of sync and I go fishing for an emotional reason instead of offering you a simple structural technique to help you feel better, then I’m not doing my job. But even assuming that SER is what is needed in order to resolve your issue, this could look like anything on a spectrum from quiet and still to loud and full of movement. How do we know what is right for you? By paying attention to the response of your body, looking for signs of tissue release, and feeling the qualities of your craniosacral rhythm.
Myth #4: I’ll lose control during the SER process.
The truth is, even if your body gives us every indication that it needs to let go of something and SER will be necessary in order for that to happen, you always have the final say. Your inner wisdom may be bringing something up to get your attention, but your conscious mind gets to say yes or no to that, and a no can mean “not now” or “not ever.” There are also ways to slow down a process to make it more manageable, or to address it in smaller pieces. If you are concerned about losing control or feeling overwhelmed, please bring up your concerns so that we can address them together.
Myth #5: SER is a substitute for psychotherapy.
SER is bodywork and is in no way a substitute for psychotherapy. Each is its own distinct modality, and they can complement each other or stand alone, depending on your individual needs. For example, there was a very stressful time in my life where I was dealing with huge changes in my family structure and relationships, and I chose to receive both CranioSacral Therapy and psychotherapy sessions on a regular basis. The CST sessions had a significant SER component, and they helped me to release pain from my body, resettle my nervous system, and gain insight into my situation in a bottom-up (arising more from the body) way. The psychotherapy sessions offered other resources, including helpful advice, training in coping skills, and time to analyze what was happening in a top-down (arising more from the mind) way. Of course, the body and mind are not separate and distinct from one another, so anything happening on a physical level affected what was happening on a mental/emotional level and vice versa.
Bodywork can absolutely affect the mind, and psychotherapy can absolutely affect processes in the body. It can be valid to start with just one, and that may be all that is needed. But maybe in the course of psychotherapy, you discover that you’re “stuck” and could use the benefit of a more body-centered approach, so you add CST and are open to the possibility of SER as one of the missing pieces. Or maybe during the course of a series of CST sessions, an unexpected emotional issue arises and requires more resources to process than are available while you’re on the table, so you add psychotherapy as a way to gain valuable skills to work with what has come up for you. There are many ways this can work, and any responsible CranioSacral Therapist who facilitates SER work on a regular basis will be able to make a psychotherapy referral if one is needed.
I hope this has given you a better explanation of a process that can sometimes seem mysterious.
Do you have questions about SER that I haven’t answered here? If so, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. And if you’re curious about what CST can do for you, please contact me and let’s talk about how I can help!