One of my favourite tales from Shamanism, as told originally by Caroline Myss, comes from the Navajo tribe in the post-WWII era. One of their young men not only fought in the war, but during it, was subjected to extreme torture. Naturally, he returned to his people utterly changed: traumatised, depressed, and drinking to excess. The elders of his tribe realized that due to the trauma, part of his soul had been left behind in the war, and they needed to call it back. So they gathered together, brought him into their circle, and proceeded to bind his arms and legs. Then they threw him into the river.
As he struggled, they shouted that he had to fight for his life in order to survive, and that in order to fight for his life, he needed all of his soul strength. And that meant calling back the part of himself he’d abandoned.
The Shamanic concept referred to here is soul loss; the idea is that at the moment of trauma, a part of our ‘self’, our psyche, remains locked in the past. Thereafter, emotionally and psychologically, there is restrained growth or even a shutting-down, and an endless resonance in our lives and bodies—which we experience as depression, addiction, or constriction in some manner. Whether due to war, sexual or emotional abuse, grief, or much else, we abandon part of ourselves: the part that hurts too much to bear.
As for the young man thrown into the river, this is what he did: In the darkness of near-death, he yelled and screamed and thrashed about, fighting for survival. When we fight for survival, our entire nervous system is engaged, and in that fight we are able to override patterns in our brains. In fighting, this man had to draw on a part of himself that he had left behind, the part that had the strength for self-defense. Afterwards, he did recover from depression and drinking and went on to live a normal life.
In my coaching, I engage with what Shamans would call ‘soul loss’ by directly communicating with the inner wounded person, which is often a child – hence the common term “inner child work.” In this article, I’m going to explain why that works, and how it’s done, from a neurological and practical point of view. Please note my theories are my own, and derive both from my own research and from my practical therapeutic experience.
What is Inner Child Work?
In the era of modern psychology, ‘inner child work’ has a great resonance, but sometimes, alas, at the more clichéd end of the spectrum. I say ‘alas’ because it does have a great deal of power, although it’s not always used in its most potent form in my opinion. One of my favourite therapeutic explorations is to identify, from one’s psyche, traditional archetypal energies with which we might not be in touch. For example: the child, the mother, the bad boy, the Magician, the Warrior. I find that unlocking some aspect of our psyche that hasn’t had enough of a voice can unlock something in ourselves.
‘Inner child’ is not the most accurate word, since it’s not always a child who has experienced trauma, just some past version of ourselves—however for the purpose of explanation, I will use it. My favourite kind of inner child work takes place spontaneously in a moment of emotional/physiological turmoil. For example, during energy work or deep tissue release someone might tell me they spontaneously have a memory of being a particular age, and/or they have an emotional release (anger, crying, shame, etc.). At that moment, I encourage us both to go communicate with that part.
It is so potent to engage with the inner child at the moment of re-triggering a traumatic memory because at this moment we are able to directly engage with that particular part of ourselves that normally hides, the part of us that only emerges in pain. It is also the part of ourselves that lies in wait within our brain, instructing our limbic system to do ‘the thing it does’ when we re-experience a body-memory: freeze, panic, feel shame, flee, and so on. Speaking directly into this part is like stepping into our mind’s circuitry board and talking down the guy with the bomb, his finger pressed on the little red button.
In the brain, the main pathway that connects a body’s reaction to an experience is via memory. When an emotional event takes place (a traumatic one, a significant event, which impacts our emotions deeply), it implicates a few key parts of the brain.
The interconnections between the neuroscience, inner child work, and kundalini energy offer good explanations for how this happens.
To simplify my explanation, I am writing this as a personal scenario which will explain how sexual arousal can lead to feelings like shame, and behavioural responses like a sexual dysfunction. For the sake of simplicity, I am inventing a common scenario, that of a woman who was sexually abused as a young child.
- Someone caresses your thigh, and you feel arousal.
In your brain, the insula helps your body identify the sensation as sexual arousal.
- Your non-aroused state is changing to an aroused state, and your body must decide a. if this is a good or a bad thing and then b. what to do about it.
The OFC (orbital frontal complex), just above the eyes and behind the skull, helps the body appraise a new state as positive or negative.
The hypothalamus sends an alert that something is not in balance, that is, not in ‘homeostasis;’ it mediates between the nervous system and endocrine system, regulating the flow of hormones. It requires other information (see below) in order to determine how the nervous system/endocrine system is activated, such as for stress (producing cortisol) or for pleasure (producing endorphins).
- The sensation of arousal connects to an emotion and a memory.
The amygdala forms an association between memory and emotional events. So in the past, the amygdala takes an experience of trauma around sex and layers the memory of sex with the emotional tone of the event itself. So sex = fear. In the present, the hippocampus connects sensations and emotions to memory; so the experience of arousal naturally finds an analogue in the most predominant memories of arousal. If this is sexual abuse, then again, for example, arousal = body memories of abuse.
- Your emotions combine with body memory to give you an emotional intention and urge around the sensation. So for example, first you feel arousal, then next you feel shame, then your emotional states are urging you to run/immobilize, stop the orgasm, etc. in response to the shame.
It is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which gives our emotions intentions and urges to behave in a certain manner; it says, if the sensation is x, then first you feel y, then second you must do z.
- Our bodies draw on body memory and the associated emotions, and begin to react in a way that it remembers from earlier associations made with the memory. So in the case of sexual trauma, the brain’s experience of the trauma-memory informs the body that the response in the present time is to contract, increase heart rate, produce cortisol, and so on.
The thalamus relays all the previous information about the sensation (arousal), associated memories, and emotions, to the motor centres responsible for responding (so it tells the body to constrict, the heart rate to increase, etc.);
All of this doesn’t happen in a tidy, ordered sequence, but all at once.
It’s kind of like the body reads sensation and experience like a Rorschach test: you know, those blobs of black ink on a piece of paper which psychotherapists infamously give their patients to assess their psychological states. One person sees a man with knives, and someone else sees kittens. You can infer the diagnosis.
This is all to say that your reaction to stimulus, physiological and emotional, is complex, hard-wired, and nearly instantaneous. Here’s something else very interesting: you may not consciously have ‘memories’ of past events. It is all processed very quickly, and very subconsciously, and there is not always time for a ‘scene’ to rise into our awareness. But you can be very assured that your body remembers.
A Kundalini explanation (Chi, Chakras and all that stuff)
In sexual healing, there is a great emphasis amongst practitioners of sacred sexuality (like Tantra), to move erotic (that is, kundalini or life force) energy from the base of the spine (from the perineum), up the spine and along the front of the body towards the head. This path travels from the base chakra, to the crown chakra. The idea is that we all have sexual energy at the base, and normally feel arousal in our genitals. If we are able to move it through breath, sound and movement, it can reach our heads (crown chakra) and then we feel sexual arousal throughout our entire bodies – and are capable of full body orgasms. I often draw a connection between moving this energy to using breath and movement to move oxygenated blood upwards from the genitals, nourishing the glands and organs that produce the happy hormones of sexual bliss.
I won’t go into the meaning of chakras or how they are supposed to work, except to say that trauma and sex are both are associated with lower energy centres (below the chest), and in situations of sexual trauma, often a person’s energy is said to be stuck down there – limiting sexual pleasure. For this reason, sexual healers will always try to move the energy from the base upwards. Often there is a blockage in the heart/rib area, where we hold grief. The wounded child in us is very much alive in this space, holding onto past wounding. This is why it is important to move energy into the third eye chakra, which brings discernment and emotional distance, along with deeper insight. The third eye (or 6th) chakra is said to have the potential to unlock the past by changing our memory/emotional/behavioural associations. Whether or not you believe in the more energetic or spiritual dimensions of healing, understanding inner child work in terms of energetic shifts is a lovely analogue to all the brain processes I described earlier.
In essence, when there is an effort to move energy up the front to the third eye, engaging with the inner child can take the holding and wounding from the heart/4th chakra and move that energy up to the third eye. This is done by speaking to her about what she needs in order to change her mind, to bring discernment, or like Shamans, call her back into alignment with a whole adult self.
How inner child work connects it all
Say, for the sake of argument, that the ‘inner child’ in question is a 7 year old who was sexually abused. That emotional experience created a link, a neural link, between touch, arousal, emotion, and body reaction. Now, as an adult, the person goes into arousal, experiences anxiety, or shame, or detachment, which translates into any series of bodily responses (and everyone is different): numbness (lack of sensation), panic, pain and constriction, and so on.
By engaging in dialogue with this memory, or Shamanically speaking, this lost part of your soul, at the moment of trauma’s re-ignition, the person is journeying deep inside the amygdala, to the circuitry board of trauma. When your body reacts as if it is carrying out the motions informed by past trauma, you are emotionally there, you see. Because obviously, in the present, a simple caress is not akin to the rough touch of someone ‘taking’ from you, as it may have happened in childhood. You are here, in the moment, but emotionally you are triggered as if there, in the past. So by engaging with that emotion, it is almost as if you are time-travelling. By speaking to the ‘inner child’, you are with yourself at the moment your amygdala first associated memory with emotion. You are likewise journeying away from the emotional grief and holding of your heart chakra, and into the discerning third eye, which has a wiser, more detached view, with which you can engage in order to change the mind. Literally.
How is this done?
Get a sense of your younger self. Ask her what she needs right now. A cuddle? Protection? For you to yell ‘FUCK OFF!”? For you to run? Give her something she needs. Love, presence, screaming, reassurance that she will in fact survive this. Reassurance that she will be a whole woman and deserving of pleasure. It’s your own psychodrama. Engage with it, as creatively as possible. With a practitioner, it can be more easily done of course, as she/he can guide you. But, you can still do this journey on your own. And you MUST, every single time you go into a body state that is not what you want, a state triggered by something in the past. Go TO YOURSELF, go to the past, and be there, engaged, in dialogue, ready to change your mind, literally.
Like the Navajo man thrown into the river, you are calling back a wounded part of yourself, reassuring it, so that it can join, healed, with your psyche, and you can be more whole.
The more you do this, the less the pain. The more you do this, the more you are re-imprinting the amygdala, so that in the future, the sensation causes a different cascade of reactions. From fear to joy, from anxiety to calm, and always towards more expansive pleasure.
This post is dedicated the women who attended the Rhythms of Eden Retreat Women’s Retreat in July 2014.