Trauma in Chinese Medicine

As we all know, the past week has put Boulder on the map nationwide. We are a small town. I think I can speak for most locals that “the list” was something we wanted to hear and also dreaded. We knew we would either know someone directly or by 1 degree of separation that was involved, myself included. 

This is an obvious easy ripple in a “bubble” community. This has been a big deal and whether you are in Boulder, have ties in Boulder, or you just heard of Boulder, we are all on the heels of years of political tension, social tension, and a global pandemic. As we head to the bank, run errands, get gas, go about the daily, things seem “fine” but know that behind those scenes, most people are “dealing” and you are not alone. Not to mention, trauma and its thresholds may be many things and many levels for different people. What is epic for one person might be manageable for another. It also has its own timelines. While you might feel fine in the acute stages, as the sting softens and the dust settles, the headaches, coughs, asthma, aches, GERD, or anything you might be prone to may flare, reactivate or newly come up. This is a very common pattern.

Trauma in Chinese Medicine
In Chinese medicine, once trauma is initiated, huge and/or sustained trauma has the capacity to impact any or all Elements either directly or indirectly having to carry the burden of another Element taken down. This is why in some ways we are impacted immediately, and sometimes we may experience symptoms later or long after the fact. Here’s a very (very) abbreviated/simplified snapshot of trauma and your Elements. 


Metal:
 This Element likes order, balance, justice and regulation. It is the season of Fall when we harvest what matters most to us. It is about healthily letting go what doesn’t serve us. Grief is affiliated with this. In trauma, the impact can shock the ordinary, justice, and regular daily life.
Symptom examples: 
Here trauma impact may be expressed as chronic sinus issues, shortness of breath (which can lead to anxiety) constipation (trouble letting go), chronic coughing, upticks in asthma, skin issues (rashes, sores, itching etc). We may “judge” ourselves or others when this Element swings out of balance. We may want “justice” and focus on seeking it. 
What to do: 
Harmonize this with breath. Breathe in this Element- feel the breath in your lower abs, even down to the pelvic floor. Breathe into the back of the rib cage (we often forget the lungs take up nearly all of the space beneath our back ribs). Expand with the breath. With the breath comes inspiration and curiosity that we need to restore the stuck Qi in this. The major organ and 1st organ in all of the “systems” is the Lungs. Hence the breath is 1st and foremost to serve this Elements balance. Clear out clutter in your closet, garage or whatnot. This is a great time to donate or sell or otherwise get rid of stuff you’ve been meaning to get rid of in the spirit of “letting go”. 


Water: Water likes depth, contemplation, wisdom and stillness. If the “meaning of life” were to be housed in an Element, it is in Water, the season of Winter. Our bones and core are here. Trauma may rock our core in this Element. When wisdom has been derailed from something so asinine and unreasonable as a mass murder or attack, our Water Element is left alone and confused, and the major key word is fear. 
Symptom examples: 
Disruption in the organs of this Element impact the Kidneys and Bladder. Here you may see UTI’s, kidney infections, or other urination issues….”I was so scared I peed my pants”…Maybe it’s urgent or frequent urination. Deep fatigue can crawl from this as cortisol and adrenaline reside here. Sleep issues and “I got grey hairs over this” are here. Cortisol levels are disrupted yielding insomnia, and hormone disruptions. Maybe you are scared at night, or scared to go to wherever resembles the event. 
What to do: 
To restore this Element, we need to come back to safety. What, who and where are you safe? Go there. In your mind and physically. Acupuncture and “substances” such as herbal medicine are restorative here. This does not mean we go out and buy a bunch of “adrenal supports” because they need to be fortifying and calming for YOU. Otherwise you may be “caffeinating” ungrounded energy or adding gas on a fire. Acupuncture is particularly grounding to pause, and feel the presence of safety. Very important for this Element. Seeking others you trust is vital here, be it friends or a body worker, herbalist or acupuncturist. The more you “receive” trust, the more trust returns to replace the fear that shocked this Element.  


Wood: This Element is about expansion, growth, anger, mobilization, rhythm. It sees your determination and sees it out smoothly. Rightfully so, this is the season of Spring when things literally “spring forth” to grow and expand. Our plans come from here.
Symptom examples: 
Shock in this Element can look like eye issues, we literally “can’t see the way out”, so blurry vision, floaters, dry eyes. Erratic sleep patterns (rhythm is off). Erratic menstrual cycles (again, rhythm). Once “smoothness” has been jarred from shock or trauma we contract= muscle pain/tension. Any skeletal muscle/ligament/breath contraction can cause almost any issue so this is a big Element with widespread involvement. Old pain patterns might come up. Our joints are literally “shock absorbers” so being in a lengthened or intense state of contraction can take its toll on your physical structures. Contraction can also bring friction which leads to heat and rage if enough Qi is left to rise into anger. High blood pressure and cardiac impacts may result. 

What to do: 
We want gentle walks, soft workouts, yoga to reach this balance. Movement to “uncontract” but not “blast-out workouts” which may just tax us more. Even getting together with friends and family to talk, to course out contracted emotions or thoughts can help, conversing about other topics because this is “expanding” your minds dialog away from fear and shock to grow directionally towards  inspiration and hope again. Be around plants- they are the ultimate symbol of growth. Buy a pretty plant. Maybe a rosemary that smells nice. Or a floral one you can watch bloom.


Fire: Home of your Heart. In Chinese medicine your Heart is your Mansion. It is the organ of Blood and blood ( yes both Chinese and Western med concepts here) and Blood is Yin, and we need that substance to calm down. In this Elemental balance we are coherent. We can focus. It shares the same “house” of the Lungs (Metal element above) (and anatomically in Western med both organs are located in the upper chest). The calmness and focus are certainly benefited with the “breath” patterns of the Metal. Joy, Passion and/or panic manifest here. It is the Element of Summer.
Symptom examples: 
We may see rapid heart rates or irregular beats here. In some traumas, we may shut out love, distrusting others for connection. Maybe we can’t think straight, recall words or names. As Blood is needed to “rest” our being, anxiety and panic attacks are common here, restlessness in emotions, or even “restless legs” or inability to sleep (so many causes for sleep issues!) but what might be of particular here (and in Wood Element sleep) are vivid dreams. The Heart is associated with the tongue, so stuttering is common, or being unable speak our truth or not, or talking too much. Laughter when something isn’t funny, such as nervous laughter can stem from this. 
What to do:
To restore this Element, safety and trust with reliable communication is key. Talking or knowing when not to talk, or what to talk about or hearing the talk of others is supportive. Listening and talking, both. The Heart is about love and bonding. Getting love and loving trusted sources will reunite this fragmented Element. Pets are wonderful for this as they don’t complicate the love and trust the way humans do. It’s also valuable to give and receive this “unconditionally” from pets or family. That quiet “unspoken” “no matter what” you are loved or love. 


Earth: Most of you have heard me discuss this one. This is our nourishment, our nourished selves and it is charged with digestion. Can we “digest” the trauma that happened to us? Are you eating your feelings? The “you are what you eat” is here- manifesting in the flesh, your muscle tone, digestion, the quality of your converted food into Blood to nourish the other Elements. It is metaphorically the Mother Earth. Your ability to care, receive care, sympathy. Our “gut feeling” is indeed here and may be derailed in trauma leaving us feeling a bit less uninformed about what to do next. 
Symptom examples: 
Acute or chronic trauma here can look like an ongoing appetite, or swing the other direction in a lack of appetite, a spike in acid reflux, cravings for comfort foods, weight gain, hoarding as the loss is sought in “stuff” or food. If we aren’t “digesting” healthily we repeat patterns and thoughts, going round and round unable to make the next move with clarity. It’s a rumination, very common here and I see this often. Mast cell/histamine issues can be in the Wood or Metal Element but also the Earth Element too. Allergies may increase, food or dust are related to this, as is a strong sense of smell to things. You are literally “stuffed” and “too full” to take on a strong smell, or tiny toxin or irritant like dander or pollen. Maybe your IBS or leaky gut flares under stress or trauma or to reiterate…later once the initial shock calms.
What to do: 
While not commonly suggested, I like a little inverse therapy for this Element. As Earth manifests in our flesh, lifting weights and strengthening the muscles can reform the Earth Element, as the Earth Element will then be strengthened. This element loves sweetness, no matter what gender you are (including menfolk reading this if you made it this far). Sweet babies, sweet foods, sweet puppies and kittens. Women are “Mothers” and represented in “Mother Earth” and as this Element is about Nourishment this impacts females more. Hence the sweet tooth is stronger in women, esp “that time of the month” and the weight women struggle with more than men. That said, what this Element likes is a bit of its own medicine too. Admire, nourish the toddlers, the elderly, the puppies, the seedlings of a garden or plant. Cook, bake, or eat home-baked goods. Hence “food” is a “thing” during funerals post trauma for the survivors, and food trains are a great idea post-loss or post-traumatic medical procedures. 

In conclusion, trauma and shock freeze the Qi flow for us to process and go about our daily grind smoothly. It may get stuck in any Element at any time, and last or manifest hours, weeks or even months later. Be sure to check in very deeply with what you need and what serves or supports you to help yourself and your friends and family. Be gentle on yourself.