Last year early in the fall I sat on a hill in Austin, Texas and wept watching the entire eastern sky turn a deep black as the fire in Bastrop County raged in uncontrollable fury 30 miles away. When the sun slipped below the horizon I could see the flames from this massive maelstrom of heat reflected angrily in the clouds of smoke that filled my field of vision. The fire burned for a month without relenting, claiming over 34,000 acres. Over 1600 people lost their homes. I will probably never forget this. Even as I write this it is hard to keep from crying, remembering the horror, shock, and sorrow on the faces of people who lived it, people who lost everything, often including pets, homes, and livestock.
After the disaster I treated a number of people who survived the fires. Many of them had nightmares, both sleeping and waking, experiencing recurrent memories from which they couldn’t look away. Hurricane Katrina had a similar effect. Even now, seven years later, I see people in my practice who are still shaking with the wind that battered New Orleans. Some of these people have alcohol and drug problems accumulated in an effort to deal with what happened to them.
The common thread between these two disasters is post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur when a person experiences or even witnesses a shocking or terrifying event of any kind. The folks at risk for developing PTSD include but aren’t limited to:
- Survivors of war, both soldiers and civilians in the path of war
- Survivors of hurricanes and other natural disasters
- Anyone who as been sexually or physically assaulted
- People who have survived abuse (child abuse, domestic violence of all kinds, religious abuse, etc.),
- People who have been incarcerated in prison
- Emergency service and rescue workers
- Anyone who has experienced the unexpected death of a loved one
Even families of these people and counselors can develop a form of PTSD called secondary PTSD which results from listening to and helping people recover from trauma.
Do you have it?
There is no specific test for PTSD, but if you have lived through or witnessed a traumatic event and find that you recurrent symptoms such as the ones below for more than 30 days, then you just might. If you have these symptoms but it’s been less than 30 days, then the acronym changes to ASD (acute stress disorder), but it is no less disabling. PTSD and ASD include both physical and mental/emotional symptoms, many of which are listed below.
Mental and emotional symptoms fall into 3 main categories.
Many people keep reliving the event, which disturbs daily activity and can be paralyzing. Your brain generates the same chemical fight/flight signals during the reliving of the event than it did when the event or events occurred, so it’s as if you keep experiencing the trauma over and over again.Reliving includes flashback episodes in which the event seems to be occurring again, repeated upsetting memories of the traumatic event/s, nightmares, and strong emotional reactions to situations that remind you in some way of the trauma or event.
Avoidance is a way of dodging the memories – a sort of “just don’t think about it” tactic. “Numbing out” is one way of doing this. This refers to feeling like you just don’t care about anything at all or feeling detached from life or activities you usually enjoy. Sometimes the mind just blocks the event or part of the event out so that you can’t remember important aspects of the trauma you experienced. If you feel as if you have no future or you find yourself avoiding places, thoughts, or people who remind you of the traumatic event or events, this too is a sign of avoidance.In the longer term, avoidance can lead to a chemical form of numbing out through the use of alcohol or drugs, leading to alcoholism or drug abuse. Depression is a very real problem too, as the feeling of having no future or a sense of helplessness against the memories lingers.
Hypervigilance is a feeling that you are more aware of your surroundings and what is going on than normal. It’s as if you are always “on guard” and can’t relax. This can lead to irritability and sudden outbursts of anger. You or others around you might notice an exaggerated response to things that startle you or annoy you. You might also be aware that you are startled more easily and have trouble sleeping.
Physical symptoms such as agitation, dizziness, fainting, feeling your heart beating in your chest (also called palpitations) and recurrent headaches are also common for people with PTSD. You might also feel a sense of guilt over having survived trauma such as war or a disaster, or you might feel as if you generated the event if you are a survivor of abuse or rape.
So is this all in your head? Yes and no. “No,” in that this is not in your imagination. “Yes” because there really are physical responses occurring in your head, specifically in your brain. There are several parts of your brain that seem to be involved when you suffer from PTSD. One is the amygdala, the part of the brain in which your fear and fight/flight responses are generated. Once the amygdala is in “go” mode the fight/flight responses stay on, hence the hypervigilance. This is also the part of your brain that triggers the stress hormone, cortisol. The hormone keeps flowing as long as you are in stress mode, which in the case of PTSD is basically always. The hippocampus controls long-term memory and your ability to navigate through the world. The excess cortisol produced by the triggers from the amygdala will actually shrink the hippocampus, impairing your ability to store and recall emotional content, which is why some people have all of the stress but can’t remember significant parts of the trauma.
So what do you do about it?
Identifying whether or not you have PTSD or ASD is just the first step to recovering from it. There is a pervasive idea in western culture that there is some kind of cure-all pill or surgery for every condition. While you might alleviate some of the more debilitating symptoms of PTSD by taking anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications, there are other ways to get relief without the side effects of drugs and actually heal the disorder. True, if the condition is so debilitating that you can no longer function, you may need to start with medication to take the raw sharp edges off of the pain, but please consider these other options. And bear in mind that most physical, mental and emotional challenges respond better to multiple forms of therapy than just to one.
A great deal of research and testing has been focused on using acupuncture for both battlefield and domestic trauma. Acupuncture can shift blood chemistry by signaling the brain to shift from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system, a restful mode which promotes relaxation and stimulates the healing systems in the body. This gives instant relief from the stress reactions which keep the body in a hypervigilant state. In 2007 Dr. Michael Hollifield at the University of New Mexico performed a study on this very subject and found that acupuncture provided an effectiveness similar to that of cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Energy therapies
Energy therapies include Reiki, Qigong, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), Therapeutic Touch and more. These methods work with the energetic body, providing calming and a sense of ease. Energetic therapies are used by the US military to help heal battle trauma and PTSD, allowing soldiers to return to their units if they choose. Energetic medicine gives people affected by PTSD the tools to shift out of fight/flight and into a calmer state of mind, thus changing the body chemistry, shutting of the shower of cortisol, and allowing the body and mind to relax and heal.
- Herbal therapies
Herbs are a more natural and less processed form of medicine which can calm the mind and body without the side effects associated with drugs. Many herbs are also food, and indeed food therapy can have a definite effect on state of mind and body.
These are just a few of the therapies available to people who suffer from PTSD. Others include exercise, cognitive and talk therapies, and more. If you or someone you love suffers from PTSD, give me a call (512-619-5549). Acupuncture is a great first step for many people, opening the door to healing and a return to a peaceful life.
June is National PTSD Awareness Month. For the month of June, treatment for PTSD is 20% off at Calhoun Acupuncture. I offer package deals too which can help make treatment more affordable.
Health and happiness,
Cat Calhoun, L.Ac.