Community Acupuncture for Trauma Recovery
Friday, October 14th, 2016
by Stef Cordes and Lisa Baird, with help from Lisa Rohleder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis meant to explain a range of challenging experiences common for people who have experienced trauma. Common symptoms include:
- flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- exaggerated startle response
- hypervigilance (being overly aware of your surroundings)
- trouble concentrating
- feeling tense or “on edge”
- extreme fatigue
- feeling emotionally numb
- difficulty sleeping, nightmares
- angry outbursts
- actual or desired avoidance of things which are reminders of the trauma (triggers)
- impaired memory
- “unexplained” body aches and pains
We prefer to use the term Post Traumatic Stress Injury, (instead of Disorder), because if you’re having any of these symptoms after trauma, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. These are all adaptive, i.e. normal, responses to trauma. And just as we evolved to heal from physical injuries, we also evolved to heal from trauma.
Seeking help after trauma takes courage. People with trauma histories are too often re-traumatized, sometimes by well-meaning professionals. When you’ve been hurt, it’s risky to be vulnerable with someone, especially a stranger. We get that, and we know that many of our patients have trauma histories, whether or not they discuss it with us. This is why our clinic is a trauma-informed clinic. Trauma-informed care recognizes the widespread impact of trauma, recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma, actively resists re-traumatizing people, and tries to restore a sense of safety. (We’ve written a blog post specifically about trauma-informed care here.)
The main treatments for people with PTSI are medications, psychotherapy (“talk” therapy), or both. We recognize that not everyone wants to use medications, and that while talk therapy can be literally a life-saver, it doesn’t work for everyone. Often, folks with trauma don’t want to talk about it or just don’t feel ready. This is part of why acupuncture is increasingly used worldwide to treat PTSI symptoms in combat veterans as well as survivors of natural disasters.
The anecdotal evidence of people getting acupuncture after surgery or broken bones is that the healing process speeds up. Acupuncture doesn’t recognize a difference between the body and the mind. It speeds healing of broken bones, and it also speeds healing from other traumatic events.
Acupuncture is an excellent non-verbal therapy for all the symptoms of PTSI listed above. By which we mean: you do not have to tell us about the trauma in order to get help with its impacts. We do not need to know any details in order to give you effective acupuncture treatments, and part of offering trauma-informed care means not pushing you to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about.
How does acupuncture help with PTSI symptoms?
Regulating the nervous system
Acupuncture has a powerful regulatory effect on the nervous system. This is probably why the most common side effects of acupuncture are relaxation and improved sleep. Most, if not all of the symptoms listed above are due to an overactive or underactive nervous system.
When we experience trauma, we often go into a “fight or flight” mode, which causes elevated stress hormones and extreme agitation; the body is literally preparing to fight hard or run away very fast. Sometimes, however, we go into “freeze” or “playing dead” mode. Quite a few of our patients have come to us with extreme long-term fatigue, and have then recovered their energy levels remarkably quickly—within two or three treatments. We have a theory that in at least a few of these cases, the patient’s nervous system has been thrown out of balance as a result of the trauma; that perhaps they were at least partially in “playing dead” mode and that the acupuncture has pressed the internal reset button, restoring some balance.
Predictability & reliability
We are aware that no one space will work for everyone, and that for some folks, a group acupuncture situation is not an easy place in which to relax. (We never pressure anyone to get treatment, nor do we want our patients to drag unwilling friends or family through our doors.) We’re not trying to tell anyone how they “should” feel, and we believe that there are as many ways to heal from trauma as there are living creatures in the world. That being said, we do notice that it can be enormously helpful to have a place to go to which is predictable and calm, where your body reliably gets to relax, and where you are gently accepted in whatever state you arrive—whether that’s highly anxious, joyous, pissed off, giddy, tearful, morose, exhausted, you name it.
We all need places of refuge. The experience of trauma can send a very strong message about the world being an inherently unsafe and chaotic place. Sometimes we need to reconnect to a sense of safety a thousand times before we take in a new story. We ourselves rely on the clinic for that sense of reliability and steadiness and many of our clients tell us that they do the same.
Healing from trauma is some of the hardest and most unseen work that people do. It is a process that takes tremendous personal resources. We think that what is commonly referred to as “burnout” is actually sometimes “incredibly tired from the hard work of slogging through trauma while also showing up for my life.” Because acupuncture is so calming, people get deep rest in our recliners. Many people (including at least one of the practitioners at GCA) have had the deepest sleeps of their entire life in a community acupuncture clinic. There are reasons why we go on & on & on about napping! The importance of deep rest cannot be overstated, especially when you’re living with the profound impacts of a trauma history.
Trauma can be isolating. Some people avoid contact with others after trauma because they don’t have enough of a sense of safety to interact. It can be easy to believe that no one will understand what you’re going through, or that you’ll be judged. Trauma is also under-discussed, so even though many of us have been seriously impacted by trauma, it’s often difficult to “come out” as someone who struggles with a trauma history. Hiding parts of ourselves can be terribly isolating. We believe that community acupuncture—even though there’s very little talking in the clinic—interrupts isolation in subtle and meaningful ways, and that this has healing potential for all of our patients but perhaps especially for those dealing with the impacts of trauma.
If you have questions about how acupuncture can help you with the after effects of trauma, please get in touch.