Recovering from a natural disaster is a long haul. Sitting here in Austin, Texas while the rain is pouring down and the photographs of Houston and other nearby areas are piling up on my twitter feed, it is abundantly clear that the immediate aftermath is going to be one thing and that the long-term effect will be quite another. In this essay, I’ll be brief. I’ll introduce a couple key concepts of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and mental health and I’ll give some suggestions as to how these might be useful. At the end of this article, I will offer specific recommendations for practitioners near you.
As people who know me (either in person or via my social media) know, I used to be a professor and my scholarly specialty was national trauma and how it filtered through literature and art. I am at present halfway through national board exams to become a licensed acupuncturist and I have been a certified Asian bodywork therapist and health coach for the past few years. There will be longer posts later. Right now, the purpose is to outline a few basic ideas in the hopes of offering some good advice for anyone who might need it.
Why Try Chinese Medicine?
A national disaster such as Hurricane Harvey constitutes a major trauma. Without wishing to belabor the obvious, it is important to note that we all experience this differently. Some people are there on the ground and are actively traumatized in the moment. Still others are reliving the pain of Katrina as they wade through floodwaters today. Others are watching from the outside and absolutely sickened and dismayed by what is happening.
We all feel powerless right now. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring and the recovery is going to be slow. We all know this. And so, it is normal to react in varying ways to what is occurring and many will need medical care if not now then in the near future. How you opt to put together your broken pieces after a disaster of this magnitude is your choice and TCM, if you have never tried it before, might be just what you need.
Chinese medicine is less interested in emotions and their symbolic value than would be an American psychotherapist. Instead, we see as important emotions and their association with a paired organ. Intense anger will affect the liver, while fear affects the kidneys. Fright or shock affects the relationship between kidneys and heart resulting in nightmares or eventually PTSD. Joy belongs to the heart. Pensiveness and/or worry relates to the spleen and affects digestion and energy levels. Grief affects the lungs–think of what weeping does to you. Grief does affect the lungs. Again, I’m keeping it really brief here but if you can look at things from the perspective of adrenal fatigue or PTSD or complicated grief and attempt to heal it via Western medicine, that is a perfectly valid option. What Chinese medicine can do for you, either instead or alongside, is help you heal and sooth your physical body via the mind-body relationship in ways that differs from a Western approach. We clearly draw the line from emotion to somatic or bodily expression and address the issues that way. It is certainly worth a try, and in fact TCM is especially good for treating two issues that will surely be central as Texas rebuilds: emotional stress and physical pain.
What does Chinese medicine have to offer when disaster strikes?
Most people know of acupuncture, and treatment with needles is a valuable resource for mental and emotional health. Chinese medicine is considerably more extensive than that, though. In fact, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is made of up what’s known as the Five Pillars, and these include: acupuncture, herbology, moxibustion, qi gong, and tui na. Herbal medicine can be effective for acute anxiety and for the outcome of long-term grief and worry. These include issues such as digestive complaint, chronic stress, and more. If you have tried but don’t necessarily love yoga, you might find that qi gong is more to your liking. It is a gentle movement and breath-work practice that is a key aspect of Chinese health nurturance and it is grounding and soothing. For aching muscles or injury relief, plus many other relevant concerns, such as digestive complaint, the heated herbal therapy that is moxibustion could be of great use to you.
If you happen to hear of NADA treatment in a community setting, go for it. That is a protocol of five needles in each ear that is designed for trauma relief. It’s also used for withdrawal from smoking, alcohol, and/or drugs. It’s a therapy that requires few needles but it works. For long-term stress that potentially leads to PTSD or other chronic disorder, you might be better off having regular acupuncture treatments, but especially in the acute stage, you can’t go wrong with NADA treatment. If you are in Houston, you might try People’s Acupuncture for community-style treatment once things settle down and reopen (I’ll revise this once I know more about where to go in Houston, and there are more suggestions at the bottom of this article too, so keep reading).
The last pillar is tui na, and this is a separate medical specialty in China that is akin to being an orthopedic doctor. But there’s more to it than that. Using massage-like techniques, your practitioner will give you a treatment based on the harmonizing principles that regulate all TCM treatments. If there is too much of one thing (stress, grief, muscle tension, etc), the treatment will serve to lessen it. If there is too little of something, as when a patient is weak and exhausted, treatment will tonify and strengthen the system. Your licensed acupuncturist or your AOBTA-CP (a fancy acronym that says that we are qualified to provide Asian bodywork therapy) will also be able to perform cupping therapy on you if your body aches. Do you remember the circles on the Olympic athletes’ shoulders? That’s cupping, and I wrote about it here. Or we can lightly scrape over oiled skin to loosen too-tight muscles and draw stagnant blood to the surface in an ancient technique called gua sha, which I wrote about here. Cupping and gua sha are wonderful for many things, but in this context I’d say that their primary benefit is their capacity for treating painful, injured, or tight muscles.
(I’ve written a ton on tui na, including about the times I provided acupuncture and bodywork at Spartan Race events in 2016 and 2017, but if you want help deciding whether acupuncture or tui na is more useful for you, check here).
With any of these, we can help you with physical pain, be it from tension or instead due to an injury. Trauma makes pain feel that much worse, as I’m sure you know. Bodywork is especially good, but acupuncture is great too when it comes to physical pain. If you’d prefer not to take pharmaceutical drugs for pain or anxiety or grief, your best bet probably is going to be Chinese medicine. The value system here is one that avoids unilateral thinking and instead sees the body and mind as part of an integrated whole. In the case of stress or physical pain, this is an especially worthwhile viewpoint. (And if you wonder if Chinese medicine is “woo woo” or for granola crunching tree huggers only, check my blog post on my Western biomedicine board exam that I just passed, here; for the TL/DR crowd, the short answer is: no, it’s really not.)
Long story short: all of these modalities can help you to reset your nervous system. After a disaster, it is normal to be emotionally exhausted. You might be high-strung or you might feel numb or groggy. In the moment, a disaster is a shock to mind, body, and spirit. In the days following, the situation can be progressively more and more wearying, especially if people around you aren’t able to support you in the way that you need most. Maybe everyone around you is grieving too. A lot goes on at times like this and the healing process can be slow. That’s unfortunate, but it’s normal after an event of this magnitude. The task that follows, then, is to have a plan of action for healing. Do you need a therapist? Would it be better to speak with a pastor? Are there resources you have readily available or do you need some support in finding them? Realizing that it can be hard to make decisions when one is struggling to make sense of a disaster might lessen the burden a bit. Whatever you do, be kind to yourself.
Finding a Practitioner and Getting Started
First things first. If you’re not in a position to find an acupuncturist or an AOBTA-CP, there are some things you can do at home. Yes, I wrote a blog post about it. Acupressure, as I explain here, entails pressing on certain points to elicit certain reactions. A really nice youtube video that explains in detail some great points for anxiety is here.
If you’re in Houston, you will want to check back as I revise this essay (today’s date: 8/28). At present, Clear Choice Acupuncture and Wellness is closed, but AOMA graduate Allison Bayer is planning to open very soon and she will be offering ear seeds and other acute-care treatments. My dear friends Kathrine and Anthony Nguyen are also among the affected at present but their clinic, Lotus Hands Acupuncture and Wellness is once again now open again and I highly recommend them. (From their Facebook page on 8/29: “We are back! We will be giving complimentary NADA treatments for the next 3 days (Wednesday 8/30 to Friday 9/1)at our clinic. We are also providing regular services. Please call 713-689-8375 for appointments.”). Stay posted on my Facebook page, here, too. I will be updating with recommendations in a pinned post.
If you’re in Austin or nearby, you’re in luck. Obviously, I would love to see you and I have offices in North and South Austin so I’m easy to find (here). At present, I am practicing traditional Chinese bodywork (tui na, cupping, gua sha, and moxibustion). In addition, I am a mind-body health and wellness coach. The board exams will be finished soon and then acupuncture and herbs will be a part of my practice once again. Long story short, though: even without needles, you will get a marvelous treatment from me if you decide to make an appointment at either of my offices. I also have a good referral network for psychotherapists that I like and trust, and I have solid experience working with PTSD and other trauma conditions. In addition, one of my primary specialty areas in musculoskeletal health and tui na is and always will be a foundation of my practice.
But there are many options here in Austin. If you need a really budget-friendly situation, try my school’s student clinic. AOMA has a North and a South clinic and you can expect a high quality of care. If you prefer a male practitioner who is not only a wonderful acupuncturist but also genuinely excellent at tui na, my dear friend and colleague, Jacob Cain McRae, is in Austin, here. If you would like to work with a doula who is trained in Chinese medicine, start here. Anyone in New Braunfels would be well served with an appointment at Yellow Dragon Acupuncture with Michael, a retired Marine who has considerable training to work with PTSD. The list is extensive and I could go on and on. There is community acupuncture with sliding scale prices. My own teachers and colleagues are wonderful, of course (here). Truly, there is someone for everyone and a price that you can afford. (My guess is that there will be a community event forthcoming where you can experience the NADA protocol in a group setting; stay tuned, and I’ll announce it if so). Recently, I provided bodywork at the Red Cross command center (here) and the local AOBTA representative is putting together similar events in town. I will update when I know.
I’ve banged on quite a bit more than I intended but this is an important subject. There’s a lot to say, and there will be more essays forthcoming. For now, please do keep in mind that we in Chinese medicine are here for you. This has been a hard, hard weekend and there is more ahead of us here in Texas. But there is hope. Whether you find healing in your yoga class, with a therapist, at the doctor’s office, or via Chinese medicine, there’s something for you. If you feel overwhelmed, reach out. Talk to people. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Be patient as you heal and return to normal life once again. And even if you don’t act on it right this second, definitely do consider TCM as part of your healing strategy.
You’ll be glad you did!
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.