My interest – my love – is in helping people bring themselves back to themselves; learning to befriend themselves again, and especially
… learning to befriend your body.
I’ve been treating patients for 33 years – working with the body – helping with pain syndromes, persistent pain, weird unexplained symptoms, so-called psychosomatic illnesses, breathing pattern problems, anxiety problems, fatigue syndromes and post-traumatic problems (symptoms caused by ‘shock’ and overwhelm).
And you know what? They are all problems of presence and connectedness. They have in common a kind of conditioned inability to self-regulate, re-settle, convalesce, to ‘sort one’s self out’ – as you might say – after injurious, adverse or traumatic events.
For the most part this is due to the nervous system’s habit of getting stuck in past patterns of trauma. Portions of the nervous system become ‘frozen’ or ‘held’ – in old, unresolved patterns of activity.
We all know one aspect of this – the ‘fight and flight’ response, but the fight-flight response itself is not really the problem. The problem is the ‘freeze’ or dissociation response. This is a biologically primitive process when the brain cannot handle – it cannot tolerate – what you are feeling, and experiencing.
And so it removes the ‘self’ from some part of the experience. A brain blip.
What does this mean? It means some aspects of bodily experience are literally numbed out, shut down, intermittently malfunctioning. Parts of the body are not ‘feelable’. It may mean that you are finding it difficult to experience strong feelings and emotions – including pleasure. Thoughts, images can become detached, disconnected, unavailable.
It also means that you cannot settle your nervous system down from what is in fact a very high energy state; the muscles won’t relax, the brain won’t shut up, the guts won’t digest, etc.
More and more patients I am seeing are living as if ‘firefighting’. They are fast, they’re on the rat-wheel, feel pressured, worried, they don’t sleep well, they wake up feeling un-refreshed, they haven’t got time for their relationships, and so on.
They develop a huge variety of health problems; persistent pain being the main one. In all sorts of body areas, especially back, neck and shoulders, head and pelvis.
Other popular problems are poorly functioning digestion – often called irritable bowel syndrome, tight-chestedness and breathing discomfort – occasionally asthma and migraines.
But there is a host of other strange and sometimes scary symptoms that the brain generates in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that something is amiss; you’ve lost touch with your emotional life – the energetic life of your body – which is attempting, instinctively and relentlessly, to resolve and integrate what has happened to you.
If, in life, as time goes by, you’re not becoming more of who you’re meant to be, then those aspects of you that are un-expressed – hidden, suppressed, frozen over, ignored, scary-but-lurking – will eventually causes some sort of ill-health.
That’s just the way we’re made.
More about me…..
I’ve been working in health care for thirty seven years; first as a clinical chemist and phlebotomist, then joining the British School of Osteopathy in 1982. I graduated with honours in 1986, and, with my love for teaching, I joined the faculty there and then. I realised my passion was understanding the mind-body relationship – the effect that our psychological and emotional states have on our bodies – and vice versa. After researching the body-based psychotherapies, I wrote ‘Touch and Emotion in Manual Therapy’ which became a textbook for students. I took a post-grad diploma at the Osteopathic Centre for Children, and for a while, the treatment of children became my speciality. The naturalness and innocence of children means they’re not split into mind-body in the way that adults learn to be; I love working with children. As a result of my experience in the 2004 tsunami (story below), I became a trauma therapist in 2009, using the technique known as Somatic Experiencing.
I’ve lectured at home and abroad in various under-graduate and post-graduate subjects, my favourite being the psychological effects of osteopathic and therapeutic touch. I now teach occasional post-grad courses in traumatology to osteopaths. My MA was in health care philosophy and medical ethics, and I taught medical ethics for Bristol University’s adult education programme.
My Tsunami experience and Somatic Experiencing
I was in Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004. My wife and I and three kids were in our beach huts a few metres from the water, and the sea came into our bedrooms. Now the sea is not supposed to come into your bedroom, as my daughter astutely pointed out, but it did. And it swept us off our feet and swirled us around and pushed us against the roof of the hut. I had managed to get into the kids’ hut and tried to grab them. But you can only grab two children when you’ve got two arms, and my daughter, who was furthest away, couldn’t get to me, and I couldn’t get to her. She was washed out the door of the hut and out to sea. Her screams were drowned out by the noise of the water.
The first thing I learned about life-threat and trauma that day is that there is absolutely no room for sentiment when you are fighting with every fibre of your strength to save your life and the lives of your loved ones. There is no space or time for it. You fight, you make split second decisions that are not decisions because they are instinctive reflex behaviours reacting to what is happening now. My daughter had gone and I and my sons were being pushed up against the roof of the hut by the water, and we were all going to die because there was no air left. I remember thinking, in an instant, that I could not cope watching my boys die, and so I straightened my arms and pushed the boys up against the roof of the hut so they could grab the last remaining air bubble, while I submerged myself and prepared to drown.
Five seconds later, the hut broke apart. Good timing, huh? We surfaced in the torrent, surrounded by roof debris, but able to breathe and hold on to a joist. One minute later, the water got bored of being where it shouldn’t and decided to go somewhere else – it left the beach and the town and retreated hundreds of metres out, dumping us on a moonscape of flapping fish, rocks and huge long-spined sea-urchins. Some friends grabbed the boys and only then did the overwhelming terror and grief of realising my daughter and wife were probably dead suddenly visit me. I became unhinged and, yelling and crying, started running out over the sea bed to search for them. But without my specs I couldn’t see, and at the point when I collapsed, unable to run or even walk due to feet filled with sea urchin spines, I heard Bill shout ‘I can see them’. (Bless you, Bill.) And there were Rachel and Charis walking languidly in from the sea, wide-eyed, covered in scratches, but very much alive.
I’ll stop the story there (with difficulty, because it’s a good story). Suffice it to say that, thanks to fate, or whatever it is, whereas several people died on our beach, a few miles down the road at the next town thousands died. We were still alive, probably because of a geological quirk at the headland of our beach that refracted the wave into three separate smaller ones.
I learned two more important lessons that day. One – and this is the vital thing – if you utilise, in the moment, the incredible fight-and-flight adrenalised energy generated by life-threatening events, and you triumph; you will not suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are helpless and overwhelmed, you are vulnerable to it. Two, you can be overwhelmed in different ways; my inability to save my daughter was a form of helplessness, leaving me – for a short while only – with unutterable terror and grief. So even though I ran and screamed to try to find her, using up masses of energy, the knowledge that she was gone was overwhelming in its impact, and I suffered a temporary PTSD from that process – even though she survived.
A few months later, I read about the post-trauma work being done with the tsunami survivors in southern India using a technique called ‘Somatic Experiencing’. It was extraordinarily effective in bringing people out of the extreme shut-down and shocked states that threatened their subsequent well-being. I attended a conference on the subject of trauma, booked myself on a workshop and subsequently took the three year Somatic Experiencing training programme – the first of its kind in the UK. I qualified in 2009 and have been using it and teaching it ever since.
Here’s why it’s so good; Somatic Experiencing addresses those aspects of the nervous system that deal with survival energy and survival behaviour. But it turns out that this ‘autonomic’ nervous system, together with certain more primitive parts of the brain, is also involved in organising all unconscious functions, from digestion, hormone metabolism and immune system function, to muscle tone and tension, emotional expression and interpersonal behaviour. The upshot of this is that it’s a brilliant tool for dealing with all sorts of situations where the problem is that the nervous system has become disregulated in some way. I had found my ideal ‘link’ between bodily disorders and emotions and thoughts.
(I write more about trauma and SE under the section on trauma, PTSD and SE on this site. If you’re interested, read Peter Levine’s ‘In an Unspoken Voice’, and look on Utube for professor Stephen Porges’ lectures on Polyvagal theory.)
I use Somatic Experiencing and Osteopathy – often both – to help patients who are having problems with pain syndromes of all sorts – from headaches and back injuries to fibromyalgia and full blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – with its impressive array of symptoms.
So my special interests are trauma and shock resolution, psychosomatic illnesses and the osteopathic treatment of children. Pain is the thing that brings half of my patients to me. Symptoms caused by shock (panic attacks, feeling disconnected, over-alert, fearful states – to name but a very few) make up the other half. Perhaps my principal talent is as a diagnostician of as yet unexplained symptoms. I will build a thoroughly honest and frank relationship with you as we figure out how to get you well, devoid of power games and psychobabble (life’s too short).
When I’m not seeing patients or teaching or updating my skills with the growing cutting-edge research around healing, I love hanging out in the garden with family and friends, growing food and writing songs.