Be Who You Are: Moving Past Trauma

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

Like many people, I’ve had traumas in my life. The specific type of trauma is not important for this post, and I lived through them, worked through the pain, and came out the other side a strong woman. But it left scars, and one of the scars was not knowing who I was–knowing my personality instead of my shields.

I sometimes think I’m a walking feeling. It’s not that I cannot think logically, I just feel first, then think about it. I have fought this part of my personality for most of my life. Feeling is dangerous in a traumatic situation. It leaves you vulnerable to pain, both yours and that of the people around you. Feelings make it hard to rationally analyze a physically or emotionally dangerous situation and get yourself to safety. Feelings make you react, when you need to be in charge of your actions.

But feelings also inform all the good things in life. The joy of love, of friendship, or something beautiful–you cannot analyze the way it feels to have a loved one take your hand and get the most out of it. At least I cannot. Even hard feelings, like anger and sadness, have a good place. Anger fuels action, and directed properly, it leads to appropriate self-defense. Sadness allows you to sift through events and relationships, and know what to keep and what to release.

The degree to which I neglected my feeling side in my youth came to me recently when I read a poem. When I was younger, I had a hard time with poetry, especially the best poetry, which layers visceral images to create a feeling. I loved complete sentences. I liked Emerson over Whitman. I disliked songs with lyrics that didn’t make a coherent story. When I got married, my husband introduced me to poetry with feeling–disjointed phrases that teased my subconscious, that spoke in whirling scenes instead of paragraphs, that I felt in my body instead of dissecting in my mind. 

It took a few years, but gradually I integrated the two. Embracing my feeling side along with my thinking side has made me a more whole person. I do not have to second-guess my reactions as often, because I am not approaching life while hiding half of myself. 

Part of acknowledging your whole self is learning to be honest. When you live through trauma, especially as a child, or for a long time, you learn to hide the scary parts of life from yourself and others. You learn to be ashamed of your circumstances. So you lie–if not in word, then in deed. You pretend things that bother you really don’t; you let people believe you are in control of life when you aren’t, and you deny vulnerability at every turn.

The energy you spend lying keeps you from seeing the truth. Most things that bother or irritate you are not the big deals you make them in your mind–and the ones that are completely unacceptable are usually easy to solve once you get past the initial terror of upsetting someone. When you spend a lifetime pretending to be in control, you never see that no one is completely in control of life–by its nature, life is uncontrollable. We all learn on the job, so to speak–some people are just able to walk an unknown path with confidence, others have to learn confidence by tiptoeing into new things. And it is only in our vulnerability that we really grow and live. Acknowledging you have something to lose makes life precious–pretending you are impervious to harm locks you away from everything that gives life wonder and awe and fun.

In Chinese medicine, we talk about “pathogens” that sometimes get caught inside of the body and can’t escape. Illnesses like malaria, strep throat, and shingles are sometimes described as “an evil” that gets into your body, and then your body clamps down to protect itself, and the evil cannot get out. So you may recover, but the symptoms recur, over and over. You may never fully expel the pathogen, but you can learn to build your system, deal with physical and emotional things that stress you, and get appropriate help from the outside in the forms of herbs and acupuncture, you can greatly improve. The same is true for recovery from trauma. Few people completely lose every effect of a traumatic event. But if you reach out to professionals and others who have walked the same path, learn to use proper self-care, and address the things weighing you down in life, you can get better. 

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Chinese Medicine and Your Emotions

Photo by Teresa Y Green
Emotional or mental problems affect many people.  Even mild symptoms can lower your enjoyment of life, and severe symptoms can be debilitating. 
Acupuncture together with other components of Chinese Medicine can help.
Diagnosis and Treatment: Different From “Western” Medicine

Many patients are surprised to find that Chinese medicine’s diagnostic process is very different from what they find at their doctor’s office.  Two people with the same “western” diagnosis, such as clinical depression, may have completely different Chinese medicine diagnoses.

To make the right diagnosis for you, your acupuncturist will ask questions during the interview that may seem to have nothing to do with your emotions.  Questions about digestion, your reaction to stress, and your sleep give information that will help her to give you the correct treatment.

While many people think of acupuncture for treatment, a complete treatment usually uses acupuncture, herbal, and dietary treatments.   Using all of the resources of Chinese medicine brings quicker and longer lasting results.
Some Possible Diagnoses

There are many different diagnoses related to emotions.  Here are a few different diagnoses, with the primary symptoms associated with each:
  • Qi Stagnation:  Crying or depression, especially with restlessness,  becoming easily frustrated, irritability, wandering pain, alternating diarrhea and constipation, irregular menses, and any symptom that is worse with stress.
  • Blood stagnation:  Severe emotional distress, usually rage, accompanied by severe, stabbing pain in a fixed location.  Also menstrual problems, purple color on the nails or tongue, and symptoms that improve with exercise.
  • Phlegm misting the mind:  Irrational thoughts, extreme paranoia, hallucination, can be accompanied by either mania and rage or terror, or apathy and withdrawal.
  • Liver Yang Rising/Liver Fire: Anger or rage accompanied with red face, irritability, dizziness, and headache, worse with stress.
  • Dampness / Phlegm Stagnation: Depression marked by apathy; difficulty concentrating; foggy, unclear, or irrational thinking; dizziness; feeling achy and sore, often with tender points; a heavy feeling in the limbs; fatigue; chest congestion or diarrhea.
  • Heart Fire: Rage, red face, red tongue, insomnia, restlessness, mania.
  • Qi deficiency: Depression or anxiety worse when tired, lack of interest in life, soft voice, gas and bloating, low energy.
  • Blood Deficiency: Apathy, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, difficulty thinking or concentrating, poor vision, low energy, dizziness,  dull pain, worse when fatigued, muscle spasms, numbness and tingling, pale skin, dry skin, nails, or hair;, scanty menses or missing periods.
  • Heart or Gallbladder deficiency:  Difficulty making decisions, apathy, anxiety, insomnia, shortness of breath.
  • Yin Deficiency:  Irritability or anxiety, worse in the afternoon and evening, accompanied by night sweats, hot flashes, any symptom worse in the afternoon or evening.
  • Yang Deficiency: Extremely low energy, listlessness, apathy; difficulty staying warm; edema, frequent urination and diarrhea; dull pain improved by warmth, especially in the back, knee, or foot, worse when tired; urinary or sexual dysfunction.

Quick Tips to Balance Emotions

Here are some ideas to improve your emotional equilibrium today: 
  • Make a moderate exercise program and stick with it.  Consider tai chi, qi gong, yoga, or other gentle qi exercises with fluid movements or gentle stretching.
  • Work on experiencing your emotions as they occur.  Set aside time each day to review your feelings and write about them, share them with a friend, or take action to make your life better.
  • Keep a food diary, and note if you experience emotional episodes after eating certain foods.  Some people find specific foods that trigger depression, anxiety, or apathy.
  • Take steps to lower your stress level.  Any health problem worsens with high stress levels.

Of course, if you are experiencing symptoms that severely interfere with your day-to-day life, please seek professional psychiatric help.  Once your condition is stabilized, you can discuss adding Chinese medicine to your treatment strategy with your doctor or therapist.