Updated: November 5th, 2020

By Alaine D. Duncan, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl.Ac.

Integrating the study of the neurobiology of traumatic stress into the clinical lexicon of acupuncture has been my passion since 2005. I have found the complementary interface of neurobiology and its application to traditional Chinese acupuncture to be a source of endless fascination.

Many people call the Trauma Spectrum Response “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD. I disagree with them; I see no “disorder.” Traumatic stress is an expression of an energetic system that has been stimulated beyond its range of resiliency and has become highly disorganized. It is simply awaiting restoration of its natural balance and equilibrium. We are hard-wired to transform and heal traumatic experiences in the same way that it is in our nature to be overwhelmed and flooded by them.

A traumatic experience—we might think of it as a volcano that erupted, or lightning bolt that struck—it is surely an experience that overwhelmed the capacity of our Qi to remain within the boundary of the easy rise and easy fall of a healthy autonomic nervous system. It creates a massive disruption in the organization, flow, function, and vitality of our Qi. If a person is physically injured in traumatic event they are more likely to have a long-term effect than if not physically injured, so a lot of people with trauma histories come to acupuncturists and other physical care providers.

Our theory supports our work with survivors of trauma. Life is rooted in the rhythm created by a dynamic and fluid system of opposing poles of energy; it guides and holds our lives. We call this yin and yang; neuroscientists call it the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), two branches of the autonomic nervous system.

Our Qi gets massively disorganized if we experience either extended or overwhelming SNS activation. It can be chronic low-grade activation or acute, massive activation. Our PNS loses its capacity to regulate the SNS; yin loses its capacity to soothe and quiet yang; yang loses its capacity to activate and enliven yin. Reciprocity between SNS and PNS is lost. PNS increases in a last desperate grasp to ensure survival – resulting in a collapsed, frozen state – with massive SNS arousal underneath it.

Traumatic stress has a profound impact on every layer and level of the human experience. It can create highly complex physiology:

  • rigidity in both tissues and mental processes
  • challenges with processing physical sensations; e.g. accelerated heart rate climbing a flight of stairs is mistaken for a panic attack
  • phobias and hyper or hypo-arousal with touch, sensation, and smells
  • compromised capacity for relationships – bonding, attachment, and safety with another
  • severe distress in every layer of human experience – body, mind, and spirit

Healers of all stripes recognize that traumatic stress gets in the way of our interventions. We can’t get to it, and sometimes even cause a worsening of symptoms. Stress physiology prevents our body from responding in a “normal” way.

Trauma is experienced differently today than when acupuncture came into being 3,000 years ago. In those days, people returned home from war, natural disasters, or human tragedies to intact families and communities and an agrarian life-style that immersed them in the regulating impulses of the lunar and solar cycles.

Our traditional texts refer to trauma primarily as disturbances to the heart shen. My study and practice has found that each of the Five Elements play a role in our threat response and are uniquely impacted by traumatic experience(s). Here is a sketch:

Metal: First Breath and Last Breath. Awakening Our Threat Response; Grieving for Loss.

Grief is the predominate emotion. There is a very primal sense of shutdown. It is hard to inhale – to receive life and any of the gifts that are here for them now; or exhale and let go of their past. The question “How can a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people” is tormenting for them. Their breath may be shallow and they may have deeply soulful survival guilt.

Water: The Arrest Response. Signaling the Body to Prepare for Threat.

Fear or the lack of fear predominates. Unable to sink deeply and fearlessly into themselves, their eyes can’t sit still, scanning in anxious and fearful attention. Unable to successfully mount a mobilization response in the past, their traumatic stress manifests as hyper-vigilant alertness or its opposite—collapsed and frozen, agoraphobic at its extreme.

Wood: The Mobilization Response. Strength for Fight. Strategy for Flight.

Anger or a collapsed lack of assertion predominates. Unable to complete a survival response rooted in fight or flight in the past, they will either look for avenues to complete it or have given up in hopeless resignation. They will either smash down a door before checking to see if it is unlocked or feel suppressed and hopeless but with a mountain of rage underneath the veneer of collapse.

Fire: Restoring Relationship in our Hearts and our Minds.

Sadness predominates. We see flat emotions, memory, and cognition are slow; they are socially inhibited and very anxious. They can’t look you in the eye – it is very hard for them to feel vulnerable and safe in relationships. The Chinese character for heart is identical to the one for mind. They knew that a disturbance in the heart affects the mind, and vice-versa.

Earth: Digesting the Gristle. Harvesting the Lessons.

Digestion is shut down; they can’t receive anything, hold onto anything, can’t digest or integrate experiences. The stomach and spleen help us break down our stories into digestible bits, digest that gristle and harvest the lessons from life’s challenges. It may be hard to digest food – with symptoms like IBS or GERD – or it may be hard to digest their memories and move forward embracing life.

About the Author: Alaine Duncan brings over 20 years of experience as an acupuncturist to her soulful study of the human response to threat. She received her Master of Acupuncture from MUIH (then Tai Sophia Institute) in 1990 and completed Somatic Experiencing training in 2007. She founded Integrative Healing, LLC, in 2012 with a goal to integrate the wisdom of Chinese Medicine with the study of neurobiology and traumatic stress in both the classroom and the treatment room. For more information: www.integrativehealingworks.net