Acupuncture and Trauma

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Acupuncture and Trauma, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news recently about trauma and its long-lasting, damaging effects, but what is trauma and what does it have to do with acupuncture?

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound”. A trauma can be a physical injury or a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, or it can be the emotional shock following a stressful event or physical injury. From a psychological perspective, traumatic experiences are those that are emotionally painful and distressing and which overwhelm an individual’s capacity to cope. An experience of powerlessness is a primary trait of traumatization.

Following an initial trauma, a person may be left with intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. They may feel unsettled or unsafe and startle easily, becoming hypervigilant. Or they may struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. Sleep disturbances are common, as are changes in appetite, either too much or too little. Pain is often a result of trauma - pain from injuries, direct trauma, or severe migraines. Because a person may be hypersensitive to and easily triggered by certain sights, sounds, smells, or physical sensations, they will often withdraw from others or public places or restrict the type of activities they do so as to avoid the things that trigger them.

One of the most common ways that trauma is manifested is in chaotic emotions such as fear, anxiety, rage, guilt, and shame. In addition to trauma’s effect on emotions, traumatic experiences may also be stored in the tissues of the body as tightness or pain. Physical and emotional trauma can affect the mind, causing difficulty concentrating, remembering, or thinking clearly. Some people who’ve experienced trauma may not consciously remember the trauma, but their bodies do.

Some seek to numb the pain by using drugs, alcohol, or food. My first acupuncture job was doing detox work for Yolo County Drug and Alcohol and I was surprised to find out just how many of my clients had histories of trauma or abuse. Now we know about the connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and addiction, but at the time it was more commonly thought of as something to which people were genetically predisposed. While there is a hereditary component to addiction, it’s unclear how much is due to epigenetics and genes being turned on/off by the body’s response to trauma.

There is no clear pharmacological treatment for trauma and PTSD. Current treatment includes antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and antipsychotic drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and counseling.

Chinese medicine is primarily concerned with restoring balance to the mind and body and employs many techniques to bring extreme emotional and physical responses back into balance. In Chinese medicine, there is no separation between body, mind, spirit, and emotions; for centuries they have been viewed as a seamless whole - disharmony in one affecting the others. Because of this connection, by treating areas of the body affected by trauma, acupuncture can help release and heal the emotional pain held in the body.

One of the major benefits of acupuncture for trauma is that it helps to switch the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body's unconscious actions, out of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight, flight, or freeze” response) into the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” mode). Acupuncture helps to provide relief from the incursion of stress hormones, allowing the body to rest and to begin the process of healing

Acupuncture can help with many of the symptoms that contribute to disrupted sleep patterns: anxiety, trouble falling asleep, nightmares and/or night-terrors. Many people report sleeping more deeply after an acupuncture treatment, even if they don’t have insomnia. For those with chronic trouble sleeping, regular acupuncture treatments can make a big difference.

A study published in June 2007 in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease that showed that acupuncture “provided large treatment effects for PTSD” similar to those seen after counseling and therapy. According to the study, acupuncture was able not only to reduce PTSD symptoms, but to keep reducing those symptoms even three months after treatment ended.

Acupuncture for trauma can be done in either private or group settings. Treatment in a group setting usually involves an ear treatment protocol because it is easy to administer while patients are seated in chairs and does not require the removal of clothing.

Acupuncture is currently being used to treat trauma and PTSD by Acupuncturists Without Borders (disaster relief) and by the US military (veterans).

Regardless of when a traumatic experience happened, the impact on a person’s life can be profound. Acupuncture is a safe, effective, and drug-free way to help people recover from the effects of trauma and return to living happier, fuller lives.