A few years ago we were on the final day of a retreat at a beautiful center in Byron Bay. As we were leaving and the next group of people were about to arrive, they were setting up the retreat hall with sound proof boards and curtains in preparation for some intense 'emotional release work' Tears, screams, shaking, letting it rip from all orifices.
I was intensely curious, as I had never experienced something quite like this before, and then the leader of our retreat made a comment I would never forget: 'That is so seventies!'
Several years later I did get a taste of such a process with a couple of breathwork sessions. It certainly felt empowering to be part of a large group who were given permission to go beyond all usual conventions and pleasantries, simply tapping in to the primal urge to let rip without holding back. Yet although I felt good for a while having released some pent up energy in my body, I'm not sure I was all that pleasant to be around the following week and I realized my nervous system was actually quite fragile.
And so I really pondered the question, can emotional release work actually heal trauma or is it just temporary symptom relief? Is there another gentler and perhaps safer way?
It then dawned on me that what we often think of as releasing trauma is actually tapping into the layers of our own defense responses which arise to protect us from re-experiencing the soul-searing, gut wrenching and heart breaking pain which lies underneath. This pain is The Root, and our defense responses then come to the rescue to make sure we never, ever, ever experience this root again.
In the language of brain science, we orient away from this Root Pain at all costs by activating our autonomic nervous system, which is what makes us feel the intense impact of trauma in our bodies. Then when anything even vaguely reminds us of the original trigger, a part of us is programmed to fight, so activating the muscles of the arms and upper body, and another part may activate our leg muscles to get us the hell out of there as fast as possible. We may also shut down and freeze. All kinds of physical symptoms can be activated here - uncontrollable shaking, coughing, vomiting, pain, screaming and spasms. Yet the root - which is not actually housed in the autonomic nervous system but in a part of the mid-brain called the Periaqueductal Gray - is almost always left untouched when these defense responses take over.
Yes, generally it's much better to let it out than keep it in. However, what if we were actually able to access and clear the root? Then these defense responses wouldn't be needed to protect us in the same way. We would no longer have a need to live in fear and we could genuinely, utterly relax!
Recently on a trauma training seminar I experienced what it feels like to release a Root. It was a seminar hosted by master trauma therapist Lisa Schwarz, founder of CRM (Comprehensive Resource Model). I was chosen to partake in a demo where she would take me through a process to unearth the roots of a mysterious fear response that I had grappled with for some time. For many years, whenever anything big came up for me I would experience uncontrollable coughing, sometimes with the release of tears and phlegm from my chest.
In this process, she first had be breathe deeply and then visualize and feel my connection and belonging to nature and mother earth; and then build a grid to joining places in my body which felt grounded, solid, stable and present. She had me invoke the presence of a loving ancestor to guide me. She then invited me to trust my body's wisdom in knowing what I needed to work on, and soon it emerged that I needed to enter the pain my grandfather endured being forced to leave his family as he was taken away to a World War Two prisoner of war camp - just before the birth of his first child who happened to be my father. I could literally feel a swirl of trapped energy release from my throat and thighs (or psoas muscles) as I stepped into the remembering of his guilt, grief, fear and the inner conflict which caused him to remain silent about these five tortuous years until his deathbed.
I discovered that this ancestral trauma was actually held in my own body, revealing a deeper layer of fear that lay beneath any fear which I experienced in this current timeline.
The coughing and tears came in full force as expected, yet this time with Lisa's skillful guidance I felt safe and solid enough to go deeper towards The Root. Staying there for not even a minute, using breath to feel fully and gently release, allowed more of the narrative to unfold and a certainty to emerge that a big shift had taken place and I could now feel fully re-connected to my father's ancestral line. Love was unveiled as the fear released - a love which deeply honored my grandfather and carried me to a place of beautiful connection with my father, knowing the struggles that he had carried upon his shoulders as well.
I also feel blessed that I had experienced the multi-layered, fractal nature of trauma; the insight that so many challenges we experience in this life have deeper ancestral, past life or collective roots. This calls us to view our own healing as intimately connected not only to our ancestral line, but to all of humanity.
As if by magic, the cough has never returned. I realized now that it had always been a defense response which turned me away from going deeper. I realized that the key to being able to step into The Root was to feel safe enough to do so without needing to check out or be carried away by some other defense response. With this safety came embodiment, connection, spaciousness and depth.
I was no longer stuck in the seventies - I realized I had truly found a way to dig up and heal the root. I then became excited about what lay before me in my next gardening adventure!