Acupuncture for Post Traumatic Stress (April 2008)
By Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac
We all know the effects of stress on our bodies: we feel tense, irritable, and may get a bit of insomnia, or have digestive dysfunction or headaches. The effects of experiencing traumatic events create an even deeper stress on our bodies and psyche however, leaving its victims with constant anxiety, heightened adrenalin surges, regular insomnia & nightmares, depression, and more severe emotional disorders. Some sufferers lose their ability to speak. Others suffer extreme fatigue. Whether the victim is a survivor of sexual or physical abuse, or was a witness to the horrors of war or an accident, or even an overworked executive or parent…stress takes its toll on everyone.
Acupuncture, especially when administered by a Licensed Acupuncturist (L.Ac.) who have the highest training in Asian medicine & acupuncture, has shown to be an effective tool in dealing with post-traumatic or current stress…helping others gain a full night’s sleep with fewer bad dreams, increase clarity and positive attitude, and reduce anxiety and stress. Relief is almost immediate when receiving acupuncture, with recipients experiencing a noticeable calmness, alertness, reduction in anger, and improvement in mood. With regular treatments, recipients gain the ability to sleep peacefully at night, enjoy more positive interactions with others, focus on work, and deal effectively with the ups and downs of everyday life.
In a June 2007 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, medical researchers found that acupuncture was an effective and acceptable treatment approach for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The military is in the final stages of research studying the effectiveness of acupuncture as treatment for PTSD among military personnel, which will be presented later this year.
Licensed Acupuncturists can provide treatments tailored to each individual or effectively provide a standard ear (auricular) acupuncture treatment to reduce the effects of trauma. Auricular acupuncture as developed by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) is used by Licensed Acupuncturists and detox specialists to treat both the physical cravings of addiction, as well as to calm the constant anxiety of those under stress. This protocol was used by acupuncturists to treat the emergency responders (firefighters, police, etc.) at the September 11th tragedy in New York, at Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans, and at the fires in California. Other international programs are using acupuncture at refugee camps, on search and rescue personnel, and at counseling centers and hospitals.
Locally, the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine (PIHMA, College & Clinic, www.pihma.edu ) treats both individuals and groups (such as veterans) at their community clinic. There are also over 450 other Licensed Acupuncturists (L.Ac.) in the state who are trained to deliver this type of care (see www.azacuboard.az.gov).
How does it work? In Asian medicine, stress disrupts the flow of energy (or “Qi”) in the body. It affects the Wood/Liver system which regulates this flow, including the timing of all other functions in the body, such as digestion (nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea with alternating constipation), sleep cycles, hormonal cycles, and overall energy. The emotions associated with the Liver are anger & frustration. Stress will exacerbate these emotions, creating irregular outbursts and accumulation of resentment. PMS is a good example of this, which is caused by stagnation of Liver Qi. Those with post-traumatic stress will also harbor anger and frustration which appears to be inappropriate or misplaced at times, but in this case, originates with the emotional trauma or emotion having an effect on the physical body…thereby creating other physical symptoms, and more anger & frustration. Eventually, the unresolved anger will turn into depression and hopelessness.
Severe emotional trauma will go on to affect the Fire/Heart system, which covers the ability to experience joy, and houses the calmness of spirit. Those with extreme emotional and psychological disorders (mania, schizophrenia, dissociative disorders) are often institutionalized, and most if not all, suffer from a Heart imbalance. These Heart imbalances come from an excess of Fire or heat which disturbs the calm function of the heart. This can come about by excess Liver Heat and stagnation, which dries up the Heart Blood (moisture which nourishes the heart) creating agitation.
Other facets of post-traumatic stress are disruptions of the Earth/Spleen/Stomach system which prevents normal digestion of food and production of blood, creating fatigue, and anemia. It creates excess worry and obsession. Similarly extreme fear affects the Water/Kidney system which governs the urinary system, sexual organs, and skeletal/brain structure. Many will simply shut down the energy in that area, creating an aversion to sex. Others may experience low back ache and urinary tract disorders. A deficiency in this organ system prevents the body from using its fluids to calm the hyperactivity of the Heart system. I have even seen the hair of frightened victims that turned white overnight after having received extreme threats of harm. Asian medicine recognizes this mind-body connection and finds that even minor stress and fear can disrupt the brain function and “age” us more rapidly.
Acupuncture is one of the tools of Asian medicine which can effectively break up stagnation and get energy moving again. It can clear excess heat which disturbs the heart and creates anxiety. It can strengthen the organs which have stopped functioning properly as a reaction to stress and fear. Asian medical acupuncture is well-equipped historically and currently to address all of these disorders, and to do so quite cheaply. Individual treatments range from $35 at the PIHMA college clinic (to higher for other Licensed Acupuncturists), and from $10 in group treatments (which have been found to provide even greater support by sharing healing with other survivors). When combined with the other tools in Asian medicine, such as herbal medicine, bodywork, nutrition, exercise, and meditation, survivors have multiple and immediate options for dealing with post-traumatic stress. Indeed, relief is only a short treatment away.
Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac. is the President and Founder of the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture (PIHMA), College & Clinic, the Valley’s only accredited college of Asian Medicine.