While it may be common for psychotherapists to undergo therapy themselves, my question after reading a recent article on therapist burnout (“Demand for Counseling Soared […] “) is whether or not acupuncture and other modalities of Chinese medicine are on the radar for these hard-working professionals. I have had several therapist patients, as I ponder it. Therapists who already know about acupuncture and holistic medicine are enthusiastic about it; consequently, my thoughts then wandered towards those who do not know of this marvel.
If you are a counselor or psychotherapist, this essay is for you. Throughout it, you will find some useful thoughts on acupuncture in general. I will also outline a few modalities that Chinese medicine (hereafter referred to as CM) has to offer those who don’t like the thought of acupuncture needles. In addition, I make note of some specific areas that are of special interest regarding a therapist’s self care and support via CM. It is my hope that you will find options for meaningful rest and relaxation herein. You need and deserve this, now more than ever.
A brief introduction may be in order. The short version? I am an acupuncturist, herbalist, and wellness educator in Austin, Texas. Previous to this career, I was a Spanish professor. My area specialty was national trauma (namely: civil war, dictatorship, genocide, and torture) and how this filtered through literature and art. My work consisted of decades of studying fairy tales, fantastic literature, myth, and more as expressed via short fiction. It also entailed a focus on realist narratives, including photographs, essays, and plastic art. There is much to be said about our current context from my professional perspectives, both the medical and the scholarly.
What about you and your colleagues, then? What of the hardworking therapists who are holding space for what used to be the normal roster of trauma and other challenges? You have spent the past year dealing with not just a national trauma but, instead, what is truly a global one. We have ALL had a hard time this past year. Moving now into a so-called “transition back to normalcy” is pretty jarring too, even if one’s fondest wish over the past year has been to go outside or to hug the grandparents or to cast off the mask or…well, fill in the blank with your option of choice. As a practitioner, how has your self-care practice changed in response? What have you learned about your well-being as a result of the tremendous cultural shifts we’ve seen over the past year or so?
In my estimation now, more than ever, is a great time for all carers and healthcare providers to explore options for self care and nurturing. The following three points are an attempt to share some ideas specifically for therapists.
~~~ It’s Not Just Needles ~~~
It’s been awhile since my first acupuncture treatment but I still remember being apprehensive and full of questions. Would it hurt? Do the needles leave bruises? Are they sanitary? The only reason I went for acupuncture was because I went to a talk given by a practitioner and he was persuasive and kindly. (And now here I am, what can I tell you?)
The long story short is that no, the needles do not hurt and yes, they are sanitary (they are single-use only and disposed of properly after your treatment). Sometimes you end up with a bruise but that is not the norm and they generally fade quickly. If you are utterly not convinced, then do keep in mind that there is a plethora of other ways to enjoy the benefits of CM that do not involve acupuncture. Take a look at this blog post, “Acupuncture and More (Where to Start if Needles Make You Nervous.” As you can see, there is a wide range of possible interventions, including traditional bodywork therapy, nutritional support, and more. Especially if you have a tight lower back or a stiff neck or carpal tunnel from sitting at your computer and typing up notes after the Zoom appointment, the non-acupuncture modalities can really do a lot for you and your wellbeing.
~~~ The Wonders of an Acu-Nap ~~~
Being present and empathetic and compassionate all entail some level of experiencing along with the patient. You can have the best boundaries in the world, but when you spend an entire day being present for patients or clients as they work through their challenges? It can take a toll on your own nervous system, especially if you went from working in an office to working from home. Where, then, do you draw a line between work and off-time? CM might characterize the outcome of this situation as Liver qi stagnation, maybe Heart-Kidney disharmony, or possibly as the Liver overacting on Spleen. Whether you subscribe to the theories behind mirror neurons or the polyvagal theory, or if you prefer to view things as a matter of fight, flight, or freeze rather than the preferable state of resting and digesting, the outcome is uniform. To wit: your nervous system does respond to your workday, especially when there is spillover. Therapists have their own lives, as you know, and their own needs for nurturance and care.
Have you ever heard of an acu-nap? Well. That’s when your practitioner gets you all set and then leaves you to simmer. You, for your part, doze off while the needles help to settle your nervous system. There are specific points we can choose in order to calm an agitated vagus nerve, for example, and others that can help with a racing monkey mind. Depending on your presentation, the practitioner will select a combination that can help you to sleep better, to relax tight muscles, and/or to soothe your digestive system (among other options).
~~~ Go With Your Gut ~~~
On the subject of resting and digesting? Do keep in mind that a healthy gut is a happy gut and that can mean a few things to you as a therapist.
When we speak of going with our gut or trusting our gut, what we’re doing is acknowledging how truly vital and sensitive our middle section really is and how, in turn, it affects our well-being. If your gut is inflamed, you feel it in your brain too. If your digestion is weak and you don’t get adequate nutrition or you’re a slave to food cravings, it’s hard to relax and feel at ease. Not to mention stress-related matters like acid reflux or bloating…those are not fun for anyone and they are common issues that can be ameliorated if not resolved via CM. Your gut will thank you if you take good care of it.
As a therapist, you already have a professional grasp on what constitutes mental health and how to nourish it. And yet…so much has changed over the course of this past year and so many deep traumas from years past are coming to the surface. If there was ever a time to expand one’s horizons in terms of self-care, now is it. Chinese medicine can be an excellent source of holistic healing and well-being. I hope that you will try it!
And thank you. Thank you for your care and concern and support. Thank you for your empathy and compassion. Thank you.
Take care of yourself. You deserve compassion and nurturing too. Yes, you.
Paula Bruno, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, an AOBTA-CP traditional Chinese bodywork therapist, and a wellness educator. She maintains an active and growing practice at her Austin, TX office. Dr. Bruno is also available for distance appointments for wellness consultation or coaching.
In her first career, she was a Spanish professor.
Dr. Bruno’s specialties as a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner include: • Musculoskeletal health (acute or chronic pain relief; Ehlers Danlos syndrome & hypermobility support) • Digestive support, gut health, and weight loss • Aesthetic treatment, including scar revision • Men’s health • General preventative care and immune support for all persons.
The photographs, above, are of Lapham’s Quarterly summer 2020 edition, entitled Epidemic.
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Note: Material on this web site site is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease, illness, or ailment. A TCM practitioner in Texas identifies syndrome patterns but does not diagnose illness. Material on this web site does not purport to identify syndrome patterns.