Psychological trauma doesn’t only affect how a person thinks, feels and behaves, but also how their body responds to the world around them. They can experience hypervigilance, unexplained physical symptoms, muscle tension and exhaustion.
And yet, modern medicine so often focuses only on their symptoms.
In her their book, The Tao of Trauma: A Practitioner’s Guide For Integrating Five Element Theory and Trauma Treatment, Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain offer a different approach. Aimed at treating trauma with a whole-body approach, they integrate acupuncture and Eastern medicine into a trauma therapy that looks to restore dynamic coherence between all systems.
They write, “We believe strongly that what has come to be called PTSD is in fact a highly evolved, biologically dictated, and lifesaving response to an overwhelming situation. Our healing sometimes demands that we harness the power of the arousal that necessarily accompanied our effort to survive.”
However, trauma can take root in our tissues, keep us immobilized and acting in ways that perpetuate our dysregulation and keep the very life-giving and relationship-enhancing choices at bay.
Trauma also has widespread implications for communities and society at large, disrupting children’s ability to develop safe and healthy connections, avoid disease, addiction and even suicidality.
Among the possibilities of trauma-informed care, Duncan and Kain argue, are increased peace within families and communities, more thoughtful and flexible decisions made by trauma survivors, and new possibilities for children.
They write, “Our body, mind, emotions and spirit — and the health and vitality of our families, communities and nation — are each highly textured strands in one essential fabric of personal and public health.”
Drawing on psychologist Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory, which illuminates the ways in which traumatic stress affects our nervous system and can lead to disruption in our neurophysiological balance, Duncan and Kain describe the Tao of Asian medicine as “the essential principle that underlies, organizes, unites and informs all of natures’ manifestations.”
Much like the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems must be in balance, our yin and yang energies must be balanced to allow us to regulate our survival functions.
Our lives also exist in seasons, much like nature. In Autumn we are awakened, curious, and begin the process of interoceptive awareness — which is characterized by the element metal.
One exercise the authors suggest is to track the sensation we feel when we are bothered. They write, “I’d like you to bring to mind something that continues to bother you. Approach this concern cautiously and notice what happens as you gently bring it to mind.”
Embodying awareness of the threats to our survival helps complete our response to them and free our survival responses in the future.
“When we are able to complete this response, our colon can fully break down and eliminate any waste that remains. We are no longer influenced, or ‘constipated’ by a previous experience of danger,” write Duncan and Kain.
Mobilizing our response to threat is characteristic of Spring, and the element wood. Clients who are stuck in this particular response or season will often become blinded by their anger, unable to strategize responses or envision their future.
One exercise Duncan and Kain suggest for clients in this stage involves blindfolding them and then tossing a beanbag on the floor, inviting them to then toss one of their beanbags on the floor where they heard the first one fall.
They write, “If our physiological capacity to orient to threats is compromised, we won’t be able to gather information from our environment or orient to and complete a successful threat response.”
A thwarted impulse to protect or defend ourselves, like many responses to trauma, has profound social implications, often consuming our being, our ability to establish relationships, reorient ourselves and restore a sense of safety.
Restoring coherence is indicative of the season Summer and the element fire. Clients that engage easily with others, experience loving and supportive relationships, have a clear mental focus, can rest easily, can find joy, passion, pleasure and intimacy, are characteristic of this season, and a resonant connection between the heart and the mind.
They write, “When the kidneys and the heart and the brain stem and the frontal cortex are in healthy and dynamic relationship, better, more positive, longer-lasting outcomes arise, enabling more peaceful and productive living. The healthy interactions between people ripple out to whole families, neighborhoods, and workplaces — as well as out to the nation as a whole.”
Bridging the polyvagal theory with acupuncture and Asian medicine, The Tao of Trauma offers a unique approach to trauma — one that sees trauma and our survival of it as part of a continuous and ongoing cycle that, when we understand it, can act to restore balance and strengthen our survival.
The Tao of Trauma: A Practitioners Guide for Integrating Five Element Theory and Trauma Treatment
North Atlantic Books, January 2019
Paperback, 352 pages