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  • Writer's picturePatty McDuffey

Acupuncture for Trauma Support

Updated: Feb 14

According to the Trauma-Informed Care: Implementation Resource Center, “Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Trauma-informed care shifts the focus from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’”

With this article I hope that we can shift the narrative from ‘What is wrong with me/you?’ to ‘What has happened to create this reactive condition?’ If we can find even just a small amount of clarity around the topic, our nervous systems may start to relax, making room for greater compassion. Let’s commit to learning how to heal our wounds.

Trauma statistics and facts

The US Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 60% of men (more typically accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, witness to death/injury) and 50% of women (sexual assault and child sexual abuse) will experience at least one trauma in their lifetime. Within the United States, six percent of the population will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives.

So, what happens in the brain when someone is exposed to a traumatic event? PTSD is a psycho-physical condition. It is not only an anxiety condition. When a person is exposed to a stressor, there is a series of events and chemical reactions that take place to give that person as much of an advantage as possible to quickly react and find safety. There is also a set of internal signaling and reactions that down-regulate the nervous system so that the individual can return to a calm state of existence.

If someone suffers from PTSD, however, the cascade of events works a little different. As explained by NATAL: Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, research has shown that the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex, key parts of the memory-creation system within the brain, are smaller among those suffering from PTSD. This tells us that someone who has a smaller hippocampus and has been exposed to a traumatic event is more likely to experience PTSD. They are less able to convert the traumatic experience to a memory, using words to describe what the experience was, and leaving them more likely to continue experiencing the trauma as if it were currently happening. So not only is someone in this situation more vulnerable to PTSD, but there has been found to be a genetic component to its development.

In other studies, using PET imaging, it has been found that the amygdala, the “alarm system” of the brain and another component of the memory-creation system, becomes overactive in the brains of those struggling with PTSD when exposed to trauma-related stimuli (such as a war movie to combat vets). The decreased ability to file the traumatic event as a memory helps us to understand how the individual gets trapped in the emotional reaction.

Regarding chemical reactivity, an increase in neuro-adrenaline and “damage to the negative feedback on its secretion in the brain stem” can lead to an easily triggered sympathetic nervous system. Additionally, heightened activity within the endogenous opioid system (pain relief) can create an experience of dulled emotions, while low cortisol levels can leave someone challenged to respond appropriately.

I hope it is starting to become clearer as to how both anatomical differences and chemical imbalances join together to create a very complex disorder. For these individuals, the traumatic event seems to get lodged in the here-and-now, reactive, emotional body, never quite making it to effectively be logged as a past memory.

I encourage you to consider acupuncture as an effective therapy. Acupuncture helps restore brain plasticity and organ function and can interrupt the energetic pattern put in place by trauma.

How Acupuncture Helps Relieve Trauma Symptoms

The foundation of most trauma-related acupuncture treatments is what is known as the NADA Protocol. The National Acupuncture and Detoxification Association (NADA) is an organization that was founded by the late Michael Smith, in the 1970s, at Lincoln Detox in Bronx, New York. Initially, it was a 3-5 point ear protocol that was developed to support those recovering from substance abuse. Over time, it became the go-to protocol for not only addictions, but also within disaster relief settings, in the support of mental health, and emotional trauma.

I start my treatments with the NADA Protocol. The 5 points within the protocol belong to 4 of the 5 elements and a point that corresponds to the sympathetic nervous system. The 4 element points consist of Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal.

Fire: The Fire element corresponds to the Heart. By nourishing the heart, cooling the flames and creating a greater sense of peace and trust, the patient can start to relax.

Water: When someone is easily and repeatedly triggered, their kidneys/adrenals become taxed. By nourishing the energetics of the kidneys and helping the patient connect to the courage behind the fear, the will power to carry on becomes strengthened. By re-balancing the Heart-Kidney circuit, the cooling water from the kidneys cools the flames of the heart, while the warmth of the heart provides a healthy heat to nourish the life-giving energy of the kidneys.

Wood: By nourishing the element of the liver, someone struggling with trauma will more easily be able to transmute stagnant energy into the energy of a tree in the springtime. By creating movement and circulation within the body, a sense of hope is created, increasing mental flexibility (plasticity) and the increased ability to look forward to the future. If we apply the flexible, resilient nature of Bamboo to the body, we can start to understand how balanced wood energy creates health.

Metal: This is the element of the Lungs. The Lungs take in fresh air from the outside to fill our cells and bodies with energy. They are supported by the moving energy of a balanced wood element, helping to integrate/process our experiences while allowing them to move on and for us to let go. Just like a tree in the Fall, as the leaves turn colors and fall to the ground, we are left with a strong, flexible trunk. Grief has a place in the healing process. This point is key to creating the necessary space as we work to heal our wounds.

The last point correlates to the Sympathetic Nervous System. By down-regulating our nervous system and creating a parasympathetic response, we are able to drop into our bodies and allow them to heal.

This 5-point protocol works together to allow the patient an opportunity to re-set, to process, to integrate, and release, without saying a word. In addition to these points, I work with the meridians to customize the treatment to the individual, addressing specific complaints, pains, and concerns. By creating a greater sense of energetic flow in the body, brain plasticity begins to be restored and organ function improved. The treatment works to interrupt the energetic pattern created as a result of trauma, and can positively impact the other forms of therapy in which the patient is participating. Often times, patients report improved quality and duration of sleep, sense of well-being, and a calmer affect. My hope is that by helping to create even temporary, but hopefully increasingly longer-lasting, moments of calm, the patient starts to discover a lost sense of peaceful existence while (re)engaging with the world, and the ability to increase resiliency, courage, and hope in these challenging times.

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