I recently read an interesting blog article about the importance of nonverbal communication within the therapeutic relationship, and how it contributes (or not) to rapport between therapist and client. Click here to read the article and view its demonstrative video clip.
As I read the article, I was reminded of what we call “the relational field” in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. In this work, we begin by supporting a settling of the relational field, meaning that the client is able to feel safe enough to begin to relax, and that client and practitioner deepen into a sense of resonance. We may sense this as a calming, a sense of dropping or quieting between us. We acknowledge that we are coming together as two human beings, not just physical bodies or physiological systems.
As we feel safe, our autonomic nervous systems can begin to settle. We can begin to shift from a sympathetic fight-flight drive state into more balance, where our parasympathetic rest and rejuvenation system can come more online. Our social engagement system is also activated as we begin to resonate with each other, meeting as two human beings.
Once this settling has happened, then the client’s system can begin to settle under its patterns and habits into what we call the holistic shift. Here, the deeper, more inherent forces of primary respiration come to the fore, often like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, and the inherent treatment plan can then emerge.
If the relational field does not settle, the deeper forces are not as easily accessed. We remain in the territory of reactive, historically based activation. Therefore, settling of the relational field is an essential first step in this work. It begins with our first client-practitioner interaction, as we sense each other out through our words and voices, as well as the exchange of more obvious information about the practitioner’s background, experience and approach, and the client’s issues and intentions.
How we support the relational field is a basic, first skill in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. Looking at our nonverbal interactions can greatly enhance this skill. In my training as a somatic psychotherapist and dance/movement therapist, I was taught at length to attend to nonverbal gestures and bodily expression. While Biodynamic practitioners are craniosacral therapists, rather than psychotherapists, our awareness of nonverbal communication can be extremely helpful in settling the relational field. I am reminded here of the research in infant-parent nonverbal communication and how the practitioner-client relationship may serve to reinforce or, hopefully, resolve early relational trauma.
Learning from Little Ones
Little ones come into the world with their social engagement system online. They are ready to engage. Their first impulse is to gaze into mom’s eyes and breastfeed. Often, their interest in mom’s face exceeds their attraction to the breast for some time. As they look into mom’s eyes, both fall in love, and the bonding required for survival and thriving of the pair deepens. The oxytocin (the love hormone) accompanying breastfeeding serves to reinforce the positive feelings between the two.
As babies develop, their brains depend on continued attuned interaction with mom, or their primary caregiver. Deprived of this interaction, brain development is thwarted, contributing to later issues with behavior, learning and health. Babies thrive within a field of “good enough” mothering, where their primary caregiver is generally aware of their needs and communications and responds accordingly. Missing the odd time is not a problem, and may actually support the baby in preparing for a world that is not so attuned. If the baby is not usually responded to with empathy and care, development is affected, as the relational field it requires is not safe and reliable. The self structure that develops within such a field, is particularly defended, as the child grows with an unspoken, neurological expectation of not being met and adequately cared for.
What is an attuned relational field between mother and infant like? This is an important question for us as practitioners, because it resembles an attuned relationship between us and our clients.
The influential work of Alan Schore and, earlier, Daniel Stern, have pointed to the importance of mother-infant interactions and attunement for the child’s development of self-regulation. Daniel Stern, author of The Interpersonal World of the Infant, studied films of mother-infant interactions and noted how attuned they could be. They move in similar rhythms, with related pauses, tones, inflections, pacing and gestures. When they are attuned in this way, with the child’s need for time to integrate being respected, nervous system arousal is regulated by the exchange. The infant looks away when stimulation begins to become too much to process. The mother or caregiver who responds to this signal by respectfully quieting with the infant, supports not only their bond, but also the child’s ability to regulate emotional arousal. Babies also suffer with under-stimulation, as can occur with depressed mothers who don’t have the energy to respond or notice their infants’ cues, or with little ones neglected in overcrowded orphanages. Misattunement in these early relationships can contribute to difficulty with self-regulation and relationships throughout life.
This is common knowledge in attachment studies and therapies. It is also now common to look at therapeutic relationships as an opportunity to heal this kind of early relational wounding. How does this relate to Biodynamics and our relational field?
Cultivating Attunement in Biodynamics
In Biodynamics, we carefully negotiate our contact as well as the energetic space between practitioner and client. We are sensitive, like the attuned mother, to the needs of the client. We practise grounding and deepening under our own personal histories in order to provide a relatively neutral, reflective holding field for the client. If our own personal material is stimulated via our relationship with a client, we are committed to working with this material through our own professional supervision or therapy, and refer as necessary.
The attuned interaction between mother and infant, like ours with the client, occurs on many different levels. The mother speaks in certain ways to her infant, her tone and rhythm meeting those of her infant. Her attention to non-verbal cues prevents under or over-stimulation. Her words and voice, however, are accompanied by bodily movements, gestures and facial expressions. The infant plays and communicates non-verbally, although often making sounds.
I believe it is helpful for us as Biodynamic practitioners to be aware of how we also interact with our clients on many levels. These include not only physical contact through our hands, but also somatic communication such as body movements, physical distance between us, tone of voice and our actual words.
I have noticed that, for some clients, talking during a session is essential to help them to settle enough for the holistic shift to occur and the inherent treatment plan to present. As they talk, their nervous system begins to settle and, gradually, they seem to feel safe enough within our relational field, that they can become quieter.
Other clients talk habitually to maintain a familiar high level of nervous system activation. They are afraid to settle, but can gradually feel safer if I meet their energetic with similar energy. If I judge their activation or try to get rid of it, they either become more activated or withdraw into a dissociative freeze state. If I can meet their energy but, like the attuned mother, sense when their system needs to have more space and withdraw, they begin to feel safe enough to stay present. Then, the holistic shift occurs and the inherent treatment plan can emerge.
Every client presents with different needs, history and intentions. The more aware we as practitioners can be of the various levels at which we interact, the more potential we have of meeting their relational needs within the context of the Biodynamic treatment. The resulting settling can have dramatic effects. As Stern writes: “Joy is the product of a mutual regulation of social exchange by both partners.” And what can be more healing for relational wounding than the experience of relational joy?