Racing heart. Constricted breathing. Tense shoulders. Shaking hands. Churning stomach. Pounding head.
Anxiety and stress put your mind and body through the wringer. Originally evolved to help us respond to danger, the stress response has become a danger in itself when we constantly react to environmental factors out of our control that our bodies perceive as threats.
“In our world we are surrounded by chronic stressors,” says osteopathic physician John Upledger, a pioneer of craniosacral therapy as a technique for releasing disruptive energy from the nervous system. “Many [of these stressors] have to do with vibrational frequencies: sounds, lights, colors, aromas, magnetic fields, electrical fields, barometric pressure changes and so on.” (1)
Because we aren’t actually in danger, the stress hormones produced in anticipation of the fight-or-flight response are left swimming in our bloodstream with nowhere to go. As a result, stress becomes trapped inside our bodies. Anxiety, a pathological reaction to chronic or traumatic stress, may set in.
“When people experience anxiety it is an emotional response to various triggers often based in long-rooted beliefs,” says psychotherapist Lynn Louise Wonders. “When we have emotional responses to anxiety-provoking experiences and this emotion cannot be expressed in a way that is healthy, this emotion is remembered or stored in the tissues of the body, the muscles, bones and organs.” (2)
When stress or anxiety lingers in your body, it blazes a path of silent devastation. Cortisol suppresses your immune system, compromising your ability to fight disease. It also increases the rate of tissue damage your body sustains, as all of your available resources are being siphoned off to support the fight-or-flight mechanism. Research suggests stress is responsible for 60 percent of all human disease, and three in four doctor visits are for stress-related problems. (3)
Other health conditions related to stress or anxiety include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Increased weight gain
- Reduced bone density
- Chronic pain
- Digestive problems
- Depression and mental illness
How Craniosacral Therapy Releases Stored Emotion
One of the ways to release stored emotion from your muscles and tissues is to seek bodywork. Massage releases muscle tension, which is one of the most common results of stored emotion.
Craniosacral therapy is one type of bodywork that can bring profound healing from stress and anxiety. Your craniosacral system is responsible for circulating the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. This crucial fluid bathes your brain in nurturing glucose and helps keep your central nervous system fed, clean and stable.
It also transports hormones, neurotransmitters and releasing factors that help govern your body’s reaction to its environment. “The crazier your environment, the harder it has to work,” says craniosacral instructor Paul Brown. (4)
The flow of cerebrospinal fluid has its own subtle tidal rhythm that’s separate from—but influenced by—your heartbeat and breathing. When this tide becomes impeded, often because of physical or emotional trauma, the fluid can stagnate, leading to even more emotional stuckness. Stress, for example, can reduce the production of cerebrospinal fluid by as much as 30 percent.
By gently manipulating the cranium and sacrum (head and pelvis), our Portland natural medicine practitioners can stimulate the flow of fluid and help release blockages that keep emotions trapped in the body. This practice, known as craniosacral therapy, stems from osteopathy, or the ancient art of bone setting. Practitioners are taught to “listen with their hands” for the subtle rhythm and apply gentle manual techniques that increase mobility and circulation within the craniosacral system.
Craniosacral therapy is an important part of natural medical care. Our Portland patients often find it induces a deep state of relaxation in which healing from stress and anxiety can occur. By reducing the body’s stress response, it also helps rebalance the nervous system and optimize the production of precious cerebrospinal fluid.
“When people experience craniosacral therapy, the body relaxes, the brain activities slow down and the ego with its defense mechanisms gets out of the way,” Wonder says. “The stored emotions often will surface for the purpose of release and healing.”
Patients may also experience sensations such as:
- Pain relief
- Sense of peace
- Feeling of expansion in mind or body
- Sleepiness or a sleep-like state
- Involuntary twitches
- Altered state of being
Craniosacral therapy in the research
Anyone who has experienced the positive benefits of craniosacral therapy for their anxiety will tell you they don’t need a research study to know that it works. But it’s exciting to see research coming out on this topic, which will hopefully, overtime, help more people to know about craniosacral therapy and its many benefits, especially for anxiety.
Craniosacral therapy and light touch manual therapies (LTMT) are beginning to gain credibility in the medical literature as treatments for anxiety. Many of the studies are small or considered pilot studies at this time, but we have to start somewhere. In one study, researchers found that mixed LTMT, including craniosacral therapy, reduced anxiety symptoms in US service members struggling with chronic PTSD (5). These participants also had self-reported injuries to the head, and they underwent just 2 one-hour long LTMT sessions during the pilot study.
In another study, participants with fibromyalgia and anxiety had 2 one-hour long craniosacral treatments per week for 25 weeks. At 35 weeks, the participants who received craniosacral therapy had reduced measures of anxiety that were significantly different from participants who received a sham treatment (6).
These are just 2 small examples of craniosacral therapy reducing anxiety in participants with PTSD or fibromyalgia. This suggests that craniosacral can help improve anxiety caused by many conditions since restoring movement to the craniosacral system is generally healing, calming, and balancing.
Are you ready for additional support for your stress and anxiety?
For additional help managing stress and anxiety in your life, visit Heart Spring Health in SE Portland for a craniosacral therapy appointment. Your visit will begin with a brief face-to-face conversation about what’s ailing you. Then you’ll lie on a massage table, either fully or lightly clothed, while your provider performs manual massage techniques primarily on your head, pelvis and chest.
If strong emotions or memories surface during the bodywork, it means the therapy is working on a deep level. Telling your practitioner what you’re experiencing during treatment can help support the process. Our naturopathic doctors and massage therapists are trained to hold a safe space for you to explore what’s being released as you journey toward long-term healing.
Dr. Sherry Pittman is a naturopathic physician at Heart Spring Health in southeast Portland, Oregon who loves to help others regain their sense of well-being and health by using holistic medicine. She graduated from Bastyr University and completed a residency at Bastyr Center for Natural Health. Dr. Sherry enjoys supporting others in their healing journey and particularly enjoys working with women’s health conditions and mental health. She loves to create individualized plans with her patients utilizing herbal medicine, nutrition, physical medicine, homeopathy, pharmaceuticals, counseling, and/ or hydrotherapy to best support them. Click here to learn more about Dr. Sherry.
- Life, Stress and Health. Massage Today (2020)
- Natural Relief from Anxiety: CranioSacral Therapy – Wonders Counseling Services, LLC. Wonders Counseling Services, LLC (2013)
- America’s #1 Health Problem – The American Institute of Stress. American Institute of Stress (2020)
- Craniosacral Therapy. MassageTherapy.com (2016)
- L. Davis et al.: Pilot study of the effects of mixed light touch manual therapies on active duty soldiers with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and injury to the head. J. Bodyw. Mov. Ther. 20, 42 (2016)
- G. A. Matarán-Peñarrocha et al.: Influence of Craniosacral Therapy on Anxiety, Depression and Quality of Life in Patients with Fibromyalgia. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011)