Shock and Awe: Holistic Health Traumatic Stress Care
When the phone rang on Mother’s Day a few years ago, my heart stopped when the caller identified herself as a police officer from our town. She was contacting all of the families in my son’s grade because one of his classmates had committed suicide.
For 6 years in a row, each class in our school system buried a child. Sudden deaths from car accidents, a motorcycle collision and an epileptic seizure were reflected by bittersweet memories and a symbolic empty seat at graduation. Although I was a professional yoga teacher, I had no tools or skills which I was able to apply at the time to support myself or my children in critical incident stress management. In a zombie-like state, I baked the cookies, attended the wakes and sent cards, but I was one of the walking wounded. I wanted to help the parents involved, invite them for tea or offer to teach them yoga. The problem was that I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing whenever I thought about the experience of losing a child.
I did not know at the time that researchers of critical incident stress apply the “law of thirds” to the affected populations. Following exposure to a critical incident, one third of the population will not be affected, one third will experience some negative effects but they will diminish over time, and one third who don’t receive intervention will suffer negative effects for a very long time, or suffer effects at a later date in the form of post traumatic stress.
What are the interventions that can help in the healing of those most seriously affected? Many of the answers are now coming from the field of alternative medicine. Following exposure to a critical incident, firefighters, healthcare workers and police officers have begun to utilize techniques on the cutting edge of research into how we fall apart and how we heal, studies which have their roots in mind/body medicine.
Today’s professional responders are trained to provide a “compassionate presence” in the first 72 hours following a traumatic incident. David Dockstader is a Critical Incident Officer for a local fire department, and has served as a community relations field officer for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He states that it is crucial for people to realize that the trauma survivor is operating from instinct instead of reason. A friend whose wife died of cancer described his state aptly: “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t make a decision, and I couldn’t remember anything.”
“Following trauma,” David says, “the body dumps a drugstore full of stress chemicals into the bloodstream which have a half life of 72 hours. During that time it is critical for survivors to drink water, exercise and rest to help the body discharge the stress chemicals and rebalance itself. Children in school systems are instructed to ‘drink until their pee is clear.’”
After 72 hours, the system begins to stabilize itself. “Debriefing” is the process of survivors, witnesses and the larger community talking about the trauma and learning about stress with a trained facilitator. David explains that one of the most damaging aspects of trauma is that people believe they are going crazy, and that it’s only happening to them. In debriefing, individuals discuss the basic facts about the incident, where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it, what they thought and felt, and what symptoms they may be experiencing. This process is designed to prevent the trauma from becoming frozen in the reptilian brain as an active trigger. Discussing the events helps the brain to re-process and re-store the information by moving it to the front hemispheres where it can be consciously addressed in an organized way.
Sleep has been identified as “the first to go, and the last to be recovered,” acknowledging that sleeping difficulties are common and persistent following trauma exposure. When an enduring symptom such as sleeping difficulty is suppressed by medication, the cause is not fully addressed. This can be followed by a domino-like effect where one suppressed symptom then results in another organ or gland overcompensating, resulting in the use of further medication. The breakdown of health that follows untreated trauma amplifies the shortcomings of a way of life and a system of medicine which treats the body, mind and emotions as separate entities, and suppresses symptoms rather than looking for the underlying cause.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
After the World Wars the term “fight or flight response” was coined to describe conditions that resulted in soldiers being “shell shocked.” It is the reptilian brain which directs the body to fight, flight or freeze. When stress chemicals are released into the blood stream, “a 75-year-old grandmother could lift a car off of her grandchild,” says David. These chemicals are designed to provide a quick boost of power to the body to survive a significant threat. In excess, they break down the organ systems of the body. They are not designed for sustained activation.
Each of the reactions of fight, flight or freeze carries a different set of risk factors for creating symptoms in the body. The fight response generates power in the upper neck, shoulders and arms, and can result in upper body symptoms, particularly neck and shoulder tension. The flight response shifts energy to the legs and eventually results in hip tension and lower back pain. The freeze response is held in the spine and the tendons of the back side of the body resulting in back pain, muscular tension and stiffness, for example, in the Achilles tendon. The fight or flight response directs blood flow away from the digestive tract in order to provide fuel for the muscular system, contributing to digestive ailments such as gastric reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers. In all three scenarios, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid to the brain is impaired and the equilibrium between the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes of the brain is diminished. Memory, reasoning ability and the capacity for compassion are also adversely impacted.
Awareness about the mechanics of stress response helps victims recognize that their experiences are normal, which helps to alleviate anxiety and fear and heal emotions. For example, bystanders can suffer from guilt and shame if they did not mobilize to help at an accident scene. However, the capacity to freeze and avoid detection by a predator saves the lives of many creatures in the animal world, a response which is also hard-wired into our biology.
Ancient Chinese Secret: Let It Flow
During trauma, the resources which fuel the fight or flight response are shifted away from the parts of the body which are not considered essential for survival, including the digestive tract and the immune system. Oriental medicine and Indian Ayurvedic science are examples of alternative medicines which have very refined methods of identifying a person’s individual inborn constitutional strengths and weaknesses, as well as specific prescriptions for restoring balance. Herbs, exercise, massage, diet and other individualized lifestyle interventions are often used to restore balance when the body becomes impaired and symptoms appear. Instead of masking uncomfortable physical symptoms with a powerful pharmaceutical, alternative medicine pays great attention to the subtle messages the body is sending about how to restore balance and good health.
In the Chinese medicine system, chi (or qi) is the vital life force which flows through the body following pathways called meridians. There are twelve main meridians — six of which are yin and six are yang and each named after an organ or function — which form a network of energy channels throughout the body. Of the main meridians, Heart is considered the emperor. Three other meridians called “fire officials” are charged with protecting the emperor. In cases of trauma and shock, the Pericardium shifts the shock out into the skin and circulation (exemplified by blushing and hot flashes); the Triple Heater conducts the fight or flight response; and the Small Intestine is responsible for breaking the trauma down into smaller parts that can be digested and assimilated. The transfer of information, healing energy and resources that the body needs to regain balance during and after trauma is accomplished, in part, along this meridian system.
If an individual encounters a traumatic event which is beyond comprehension and cannot be assimilated, the Small Intestine meridian may hold the trauma, but the body will be less able to assimilate food, thereby contributing to increased food sensitivities and allergies. This places an increased demand on the large intestine, which receives by-products of food which have not been broken down properly. This manifests as somatic symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation or irritable bowel. Western medicine might attempt to bombard the large intestine with demands in the form of medication to eliminate the symptoms, when in fact the large intestine is responding appropriately in a system which is in disarray and is keeping things together.
Kiiko Matsumoto, a Japanese-trained acupuncturist in Newton, MA, gives an example of the use of Oriental medicine for shock in Volume 1 of her Clinical Strategies text. A 40-year-old woman came to the clinic suffering from anxiety and a heart that was beating too quickly. Rather than using intrusive medical protocols to assess the body, Oriental medicine uses pulse and hara diagnosis (palpating the wrist, belly or back) as well as conducting an in-depth health history interview. The client’s symptoms and health history pointed to a traumatic incident five years earlier. At the age of 35, after having difficulty becoming pregnant, this woman had experienced an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy. At the end of her first trimester, she was brought to the hospital in an ambulance due to heavy bleeding, and the gynecologist performed a complete hysterectomy. The client was still suffering from the triple shock of an acute medical condition, losing her baby, and losing the dream of having a child. Based on a diagnosis of her energy system, her acupuncture treatment included treating the shock by stabilizing the adrenals, treating the Kidney meridian, and treating the scar tissue. (1)
Donna Eden and David Feinstein, authors of the book Energy Medicine, write extensively about the relationship of the Triple Warmer and the Spleen meridians under stress. During trauma, Triple Warmer takes energy from the Spleen to fuel the stress response as the body aborts the functions of the immune system in order to save the life of the organism. In cases of enduring stress, this dynamic is a contributing factor to a host of auto-immune illnesses. It is accompanied by homolateral brain function where the two hemispheres of the brain are not communicating. In this state the body cannot access its full healing capacity. Movements such as cross crawling and drawing sideways figure 8’s help to restore the cross over brain pattern.
Donna also teaches people simple techniques to sedate the Triple Warmer and rebalance the meridian system by tracing, flushing, and holding specific points, as well as stimulating the neurolymphatic system. These techniques are easily shared with others. She has devised a 5-minute energy routine which resets the body’s energy systems and includes components such as tapping on the thymus gland and performing the Wayne Cook posture. The Wayne Cook posture was originally developed for stutterers but has since been shown to help address many patterns of brain disorganization. It is used frequently in educational kinesiology with students who have learning challenges. Donna considers it one of the single most effective ways to address emotional overwhelm. (2)
Simple Restorative Body Movements from Donna Eden’s “Energy Medicine”.
Wayne Cook Posture
The Wayne Cook Posture was devised by Wayne Cook to aid stutterers. Stacking the wrists and holding the meridian end points at the feet and ankles helps hook up all the meridians and unscramble the energy system. The tongue touches the roof of the mouth on the inhale and is released on the exhale for several long deep breaths. In part 2 the body is uncrossed and the hands come together to form a steeple with the fingertips in front of the heart center. Switch to the opposite side of the body.
Modified Wayne Cook Posture
This easier version of the posture called “I Love Myself Hand Twister” is much easier for people to do. Like any movement which crosses the midline, it helps the brain to reconnect the left and right hemispheres. With your fingertips facing down and the backs of the hands touching each other, cross the wrists to bring your palms together, clasp the fingers and twist your clasped hands upward, resting over your heart. Cross the ankles. Follow tongue and breathing instructions above.
Subtle Harmony Posture
Clasp and fold hands on your lap and cross your ankles. This very simple way of harmonizing the brain can be used unobtrusively, for example, in a business meeting or in court.
The New Field of Energy Psychology
When trauma has not been fully resolved, it can result in a plethora of mental challenges. David V. Baldwin, Ph.D is a licensed psychologist in Eugene, Oregon and the author and editor of the award winning website http://www.trauma-pages.com. He identifies the three symptom clusters which appear in post traumatic stress sufferers: b Intrusions, such as flashbacks or nightmares, where the traumatic event is re-experienced; C Avoidance, when the person tries to reduce exposure to people or things that might bring on their intrusive symptoms; and d Hyperarousal, meaning physiologic signs of increased arousal, such as hyper vigilance or increased startle response. A sustained stress response eventually yields to the final result of exhaustion.
Every experience we encounter remains embedded in our nervous systems, whether we remember and recognize it consciously or not. When mental symptoms such as anxiety are treated with increasingly popular anti-depressants and sedatives and the stress response remains held in the body, it mimics the action of having one foot on the brakes and one foot on the gas. The energy system remains in overdrive.
Understanding the energetic system opens the doorway to a vast body of knowledge referred to as Energy Psychology, including Thought Field Therapy (TFT) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Thought Field Therapy was devised in 1985 by psychologist Roger Callahan for use by psychotherapists and professional counselors as a revolutionary new self development tool. Fred Gallo, author of Energy Tapping, explains that TFT uses specific algorithms for trauma release which reset the relationship between the brain hemispheres and the meridian system. An algorithm is a sequence of places you tap with your fingertips on your hands, face and torso to address specific issues. It may also include humming, circling the eyes, and counting to 5 while thinking about a stressor. Years of experience and testing the patterns with thousands of patients have found them to be effective in bringing about change and altering thoughts, emotional patterns and behavior. (3)
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) was devised by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner and ordained minister. Although EFT is quickly being embraced by talk therapists through the growing field of energy psychology, Gary acknowledges that, “We are still learning why EFT works so well. It centers around the theory that the cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body’s subtle energy system. EFT is like a form of emotional acupuncture, except we don’t use needles. Instead, we tap with the fingertips to stimulate certain meridian energy points while the client is ‘tuned in’ to the problem. (4)” Gary is devoted to making his system of tapping techniques available to lay people through his extensive website, video courses and free email newsletters.
Impaired vision can be a symptom of profound stress, and is often treated by prescribing corrective lenses. An information processing therapy administered by trained professionals, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is emerging as one of the most successful methods for addressing trauma. When a traumatic or negative event occurs, information processing in the brain breaks down, perhaps because of interference through strong negative feelings or complete or partial emotional dissociation. This prevents connections from being forged with more adaptive information that is held in other memory networks of the body and brain. During EMDR the client focuses on past and present experiences in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. While eye movements are the most commonly used dual attention stimulus during this treatment, tapping, tactile stimulation and auditory tones are also used. These are usually presented in an alternating, bilateral fashion — for example, first to one ear, then the other, then the first ear, etc. Information re-processing occurs when the targeted memory is linked with other more adaptive information. New learning then takes place, and the experience is stored with appropriate emotions in the brain/body information network.
The Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Practice Guidelines has placed EMDR in the highest category of recommended responses for all trauma populations at all times. In addition, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies’ current treatment guidelines have designated EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD, as have the Departments of Health of both Northern Ireland and Israel which have indicated EMDR to be one of only two or three treatments of choice for trauma victims. Most recently, the American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines have placed EMDR in the category of highest level of effectiveness. (5)
Homeland Security is mandating that rescue personnel “inoculate themselves against stress” using a three pronged strategy:
- Understanding the theory of how the stress reaction works
- Understanding what is happening to you specifically
- Knowing what will help you and applying it
Those who have a conceptual understanding of the stress response recognize that it encompasses the physical, mental and emotional realms and are better equipped to handle its effects in themselves and others. Those who already have a reliable mind-body practice which integrates brain function and balances physical energy also have tools that they can draw on to take care of themselves in times of stress.
Unrecognized, untreated trauma comes at a very heavy cost. If a significant portion of the population is in post traumatic stress mode, it keeps humanity in its reptilian brain. Those with unhealed previous trauma are most apt to be re-traumatized. Triggers serve as reminders and cause the victim to re-experience the event as if it is re-occurring now. The resulting tunnel vision creates a mindset that sorts the world into perpetrators and victims, lacks compassion, and is unable to reason. David Dockstader observes that creating a generation that is impaired by PSTD due to war is the way to perpetuate terrorism by continually reactivating critical incident stress. We can see these effects clearly operating in the world today. Alternative medicine, energy medicine and integrative medicine approaches including those developed in other cultures hold the promise of deep healing that cannot be addressed without recognizing the energy body.
1. Clinical Strategies in the Spirit of Master Nagano, Volume 1 by Kiiko Matsumoto and David Euler. David Euler, 2004.
2. Energy Medicine by Donna Eden and David Feinstein. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998. http://www.innersource.net
3. Energy Tapping by Fred P. Gallo Ph.D. and Harry Vincenzi Ed.D. New Harbinger Publications, 2000
4. Website for Gary Craig’s Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is http://www.emofree.com
5. See http://www.emdr.com for official citings.
For a free Energy Practitioner’s Guide to Medical Emergencies, visit the handout bank on http://www.energymed.org, the website of the non-profit Energy Medicine Institute. This guide offers tutoring in standard Western emergency interventions and combined with appropriate energy technique responses. For more information on critical incident stress, visit the website of International Critical Incident Stress Foundation at http://www.icisf.org
Pat Burke teaches stress reduction and energy medicine to parents, individuals and teens, and is the director of Earthsong Yoga Center in Marlboro, MA. She can be reached at 508-480-8884 or http://www.earthsongyoga.com.
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