When I was a teenager I witnessed a scary incident that involved a panicky young horse that was injured while being moved to his new home. Fortunately, the accident looked far worse than it was, and the horse arrived at his new digs shaken and bruised, but able to make a full recovery.
However, it was not as easy for me to shake off the incident. For several weeks after, I kept rehashing the scene in my mind, was unable to sleep, and felt shaken to my core. When I look back now, I realize that what I was experiencing during that time was a mild episode of post traumatic stress, or PTSD.
PTSD is a common disorder that develops after a frightening ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The sufferer of PTSD may have been personally harmed or may have witnessed a harmful episode that happened to another. Many people experience PTSD after military combat, but it also frequently occurs to victims of violence, such as childhood abuse, rape, muggings, accidents, or natural disasters.
PTSD occurs because our bodies are wired to respond to danger through the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. This reaction is called the fight or flight response, in which our bodies are flooded with a cascade of chemicals, including cortisol, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine that enable us to react quickly to the danger at hand. For people with PTSD, this normal reaction has been altered in some way, in that they feel danger and the accompanying stress even during times when they are not in danger. The symptoms of PTSD include recurrent and persistent memories of the traumatic incident, nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks, acute anxiety, and reactivity to stimuli that remind them of the original trauma.
In Chinese medicine, each organ system is associated with an emotion. Fear at the deepest level is the realm of the Chinese Kidney, which is the deepest of the organs and governs your body’s overall health and vital substances. In addition, your Chinese Kidney is the organ system most damaged by chronic stress. Other organs affected by PTSD include the Spleen, which governs digestion and is associated with excessive worry and rehashing of ideas (think of indigestion of the mind in which ideas keep repeating.) The Heart organ system may also be involved in PTSD, in that it is the keeper of emotions, memories, and consciousness.
Several studies have shown acupuncture to be effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD, and the Veterans Administration is using ear acupuncture in some settings to treat this illness. While acupuncture and Chinese medicine can play an important role in treating PTSD, combining acupuncture with behavioral or talk therapy, and in many cases medical intervention may be most effective.
Some ways to begin the healing process from PTSD include:
-Educate yourself about the symptoms and treatment options for PTSD. The more you know about this illness, the better you will be able to make important decisions in the healing process.
-Understand that dealing with and managing the symptoms of PTSD is not the same as eliminating it altogether. The memories of past trauma will not go away completely; the healing process is aimed at altering your reactivity those memories.
-When you are feeling anxious, pay attention to your breathing. In stressful moments, we tend to breathe shallower and faster, which only makes things worse. Try inhaling for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, and exhaling for a count of four.
-Stay in the moment when you are feeling stressed or anxious. Think about what you are doing right now, and pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells that are in your immediate environment right now.
-Find small moments and activities that bring you joy.
-Try writing about your feelings. For some, expressive writing—taking some quiet time to journal about what you are feeling can be therapeutic.
-Be kind to yourself. Eating well, connecting with supportive people, and getting adequate rest are important components of the the healing process.
-Find a good support system. Look for someone or several people in whom you can confide and feel comforted by.
-Get help! PTSD is very real. Find resources in your community—physicians, groups, acupuncturists, therapists, or other care providers who have treated PTSD and can provide you the therapeutic help that you need.