TCM, Acupuncture and Trauma

TCM acupuncture and trauma -Coral Springs, Parkland Florida“Death is a date in the calendar, but grief IS the calendar. Grief has no shelf-life. It becomes part of you for as long as you breathe.” – John Pavlowitz

By Susan Tretakis – Coral Springs and Parkland, Florida – Some anniversaries are not happy events; some literally stop us cold in their appearance on both our internal and external calendars.

My friends can tell you where and what they were doing on the day when political figures were assassinated, or when something catastrophic happens to the country and world at large. Some anniversaries are more personal – the date a family member passed, the date of a major accident or the day a diagnosis was delivered.

On February 14, in 2018, my community – and much of the world – was shocked by a mass shooting at one of our local high schools. Over the past year, doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine and psychological clinicians have served myself, educators, students, support staff and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as well as first responders and other care givers. Families, friends, neighbors suffered various levels of trauma, but all suffered. For some, the public investigation into the “how” and “why” of this tragedy exacerbated our pain; for others, it mobilized local and national political movements.

The psychologist in me knows that healing from trauma takes time and that healing is not the same for everyone. I know that, for many, especially the families of those killed, the crippling pain will always be there. Anniversaries, however, force everyone to remember events clearly; many will experience more intense emotions. Some will experience physical symptoms: difficulty concentrating, appetite changes, mood swings, sleep disorders and nightmares. There is no one way to heal – each person is unique, and each person will have different coping mechanisms.

Traditional Chinese medicine or TCM is an integrated system that does not separate the mind from the body. TCM has been proven time and time again to discover an underlying cause of a specific symptom. Relief comes from not simply curing the physical symptom, but with identifying those emotional disturbances – even those disturbances we think we are handling.

Because the body and mind are equally important in Chinese medicine, acupuncture and Chinese herbs provide multiple resources to treat trauma victims. Trauma, both physical and emotional, affect a person’s “qi,” the individual’s life force and energy. Acupuncture operates by using specific points of the body that correlate to certain organs as well as to the nervous system. By stimulating these points, the brain is calmed. Acupuncture points for trauma treatment are not the same for everyone – even for those who have experienced the same event. Remember, we are all unique individuals and we all experience and react to events in our own way. Specific acupuncture points are chosen after extensive questioning and observation on the part of the TCM practitioner.

There are some that say that trauma is experienced differently today than when acupuncture came into being over 3000 years ago.   Back then, trauma was associated with warriors returning from wars, natural disasters or human tragedies that impacted families and communities living in an agrarian life-style that was tied to an existence toed to the impulses of both lunar and solar cycles.

I tend to disagree. While we may not be tied to an agrarian life-style, we continue to have traumatized veterans, we continue to experience natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and arctic freezes, but we can now add in the very real possibility of mass shootings at a school, in a church, in a movie theater or at a concert.

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between physical traumas from emotional traumas. Physical trauma causes the circulation of blood and ‘qi” to diminish. Emotional traumas cause a shock to the heart. Emotional shock depletes the ‘yin” of the heart and subsequently, the ability of “qi” and blood to either leave or enter the heart. This diminished heart function affects our thinking and our daily life in so many ways.

Traditional Chinese Medicine texts refer to trauma as disturbances to the heart “shen”, or spirit. Because of its profound impact on every layer and level of human experience, traumatic stress can create a highly complex physiology. Individuals may experience rigidity both in thought and physical movement, challenges with processing physical sensations and inexplicable fears and/or being hyper-sensitive to touch, sensations and smells. Others may experience a compromised capacity for relationships and experience severe distress in body, mind and spirit.

Grief is more than just “feeling” sad.

As a psychologist, I am aware of the many types of therapy that are available to assist individuals to manage their emotions around a traumatic event. As a TCM groupie, I find myself continually going back to TCM’s “5 Elements” theory for additional guidance to more effectively use this knowledge.

The 5 Elements theory evolved from the study of various processes, functions and phenomena in nature. The theory believes that all things can be divided into one of five basic elements: wood, fire, water, metal and earth. Each contain their own specific characteristics and properties and in essence, provides a blueprint that diagrams how nature interacts with the body and mind. For me, the 5 Elements theory emphasizes a multi-dimensional view of life as well as offering a diagnostic framework to help identify where imbalances – be they affect the body, mind, emotions and or the spirt – exist.

The 5 Elements of Chinese Medicine - Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood
The 5 Elements of Chinese Medicine – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood

In 2012, Dr. Alaine Duncan, L.Ac., DOM founded Integrated Healing, LLC with the goal to integrate the wisdom of Chinese Medicine with the study of neurobiology and traumatic stress in both the classroom and treatment room. She believes that the 5 Elements play a role in our threat response and are uniquely impacted by traumatic experience.

“In Metal, grief is the predominate emotion. There is a very primal sense of a shutdown causing difficulty in inhaling. The question, “How can a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?” torments individuals. Breathing may be shallow and individuals may speak of varying aspects of survivor’s guilt. In Water, fear or the lack of fear predominates. Individuals cannot sit still, they are anxious and fearful and for some, their traumatic stress manifests as hyper-vigilant alertness or its opposite – collapsed and frozen, agoraphobic at its extreme. In Wood, 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 give up completely. In Fire, sadness predominates. The healer sees flat emotions and both memory and cognition are slow. Individuals are socially inhibited and very anxious. In Earth, the individual’s digestion is shut down; they cannot receive anything, hold onto anything and cannot digest or integrate experiences. Both the stomach and spleen help us to break down our stories into digestible bits, digest the gristle and harvest the lessons of life’s challenges.”

I love this explanation; to me it presents the best of both the scientific, psychological world and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Good healers, no matter what their persuasion, recognize the validity and existence of mind/body connections. They understand that tragedy changes everything – and that tragedies can cause physical and emotional reactions that further frighten and alienate the sufferer. They understand the nature of “triggers” and how that can make one feel detached, irritable and anxious. The beauty of acupuncture and TCM is that it focuses on rebalancing the qi, thereby strengthening the “shen”, the spirit.

Acupuncture – with Chinese herbs – has helped me move forward from February 14, 2018. I believe that my TCM treatment has made me a more effective mental health care provider. I have learned that trauma does not need to define me, my town, and my neighbors. The study of TCM has taught me that with proper reframing and processing, people can learn to reconnect with each other.

Over the past year, I have seen this community come together to help each other; I’ve participated in memorials and marches and listened to speeches that have given me hope, that have also strengthened my “shen”. TCM has enabled me to see the many positive connections that have been created. I’ve seen adolescents and colleagues come together and help each other; I watched numerous businesses provide food and assistance to grieving families. I saw healers volunteer their time and energies for anyone in need. Strangers have become friends. Neighbors have grown closer.

Connection have been made through caring; a community’s “shen” continues to grow.

One of my neighbors refers to the Parkland tragedy as our “9/11”. As I drive around town and see the many “MSD Strong” flags and banners on homes and businesses, I am reminded of how many people flew American flags after 9/11 to demonstrate their faith and belief in our country.

Our country survived then; we will survive now.



  • Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center