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Working with the Shadow: Acupuncture Treatment for Recurring Symptoms

Working with the Shadow: Acupuncture Treatment for Recurring Symptoms

The events of the past several month have left many of us in a state of anxiety, alienation and disbelief. There’s a widespread sense of insecurity, uneasiness, and instability. It’s easy to become shaken by world events, especially those as dramatic and conflictual as those we’ve been living through. In my acupuncture clinic, I’m noticing symptoms resembling that of post-traumatic stress in many of my patients. Some of us respond to stress emotionally, others through behavior. Some of us express our stress somatically – it comes out physically in our bodies.

I, myself have also been experiencing old physical symptoms associated with stress and uncertainty, reappearing after many years. Several months ago I was in a scary car accident. Thankfully, I was unharmed. Yet afterwards, an old symptom began reappearing: my right hand and arm began feeling slightly weaker than the left. This weakness would alternate between a sense of mild numbness, tension and even pain. This was something I had experienced and healed ten years ago. I was surprised that it reappeared.

We all deal with stress, trauma and uncertainty differently. Some of us retreat inside ourselves, becoming introverted, maybe even depressed. Or maybe we don’t become depressed; instead we become self-centered, isolationist – much like our country is leaning towards lately. Others of us want to fight. Everything can make us irritated or angry.

Some of us don’t even have a noticeable emotional response to stress or trauma. Instead, we sublimate our experiences into our physical bodies, manifesting our stress through seemingly unrelated physical symptoms such as pain, sensory disturbances, skin rashes, digestive problems, asthma, and a whole list of other symptoms.

Acupuncture is an effective way to deal with post-traumatic stress, psychosomatic symptoms and trauma of all types. Acupuncture has the capacity to work simultaneously on the physical body, as well as on the emotions and the mind.

Within Chinese medicine, every function of the body is governed by a type of energy, which the ancient Chinese call “Qi.” Some qi is more solid than others. Blood and body fluids are a type of Qi, known as “Ying” Qi: nourishing or flourishing Qi: called such because its role is to nourish the tissues of the body so they will “flourish.” It is like water that nourishes a plant so it can grow.

A less substantiated form of Qi is called “Wei” Qi. It is the energy that flows into the outer layer of the body, into the sensory organs and through the gut. It is an instinctual type of energy that doesn’t have a form like blood of fluids. It is like water when it is in its gaseous state. Wei Qi is the energy that interfaces with the external world. It is reactive energy. It is also protective energy.

There is a third type of energy in the body called “Yuan” Qi. This is considered the constitutional energy, much like our Western idea of the DNA. It is the root of the immune system, endocrine system and the energy that holds the code for the original nature and personality. Yuan qi also contains within it what the ancient Chinese would call the “Ming”: the life-plan or destiny.

When the body or mind is traumatized or shocked by something, the shock can disrupt the normal flow of Qi-energy in the body. Stress can constrict the movement of Qi, generating inflammation, pressure and even stagnation in blood flow.

The ancient Chinese observed that the mind and emotions have a strong relationship with the blood. When the blood becomes too “hot,” the mind and emotions will become disturbed. When the blood becomes stagnant in its flow, the mind and emotions can become irritable, depressed or fixated.

Trauma is traditionally defined by Chinese medicine as a stagnation in the flow of Qi-energy and blood. It’s like when something hits our bodies: we freeze to brace for the impact. The result of trauma is that we stay frozen. Our body’s functional energy stops flowing freely. Our blood, which includes our emotional and mental capacity also becomes stuck, losing its natural ease of free flowing freedom.

After my car accident, in addition to the physical symptoms in my arm, I also noticed myself becoming quick to anger. My fuse became very short and everything seemed to make me irritated and even angry. I took on an unusually defensive stance towards the world. This state of mind was also something from the past which I’d not experienced in several years.

I’ve noticed, for many people, current world events are bringing up issues from the past. Most of us have been strongly triggered. Old “stories” about the world and ourselves have resurfaced, often bringing back symptoms from the past. This is often associated with post-traumatic stress. We become re-traumatized, or re-triggered. The result of this can bring back thoughts, memories, emotions or even physical symptoms we thought were resolved long ago. It is during times of instability, uncertainty and conflict that our “core primal wounds” emerge.

Re-emergence of latent, hidden, sublimated thoughts, emotions, behaviors or symptoms is sometimes referred to by psychoanalysts as the “shadow” side of the self. Long before Jung or Freud began exploring the idea of the shadow self, Chinese medicine was discussing the idea of latent pathogens. The concept of latency describes how any unresolved issue, be it a microbial agent like virus or bacteria, an emotional trauma or even physical injury can become repressed or hidden in the body. The issue seems to have gone away, yet this is not totally true. Instead of having been fully resolved and expelled, the issue lurks deep in the body, in a state of hiding. Common areas for issues to hide are the blood vessels and joints. When we are healthy and rich in blood and body fluids, the issue will remain hidden and un-symptomatic. However, at times when we are not so abundant in physical resources, or when we have been shocked, traumatized or distracted, these latent hidden issues can re-emerge like ghosts from the past.

As an acupuncturist, when I work with a patient one of the first things I must discover is where  the symptoms are coming from. I can use myself as an example. My arm symptoms were not the result of physical trauma. I was not injured in my car accident. I didn’t even have a scratch. I found it interesting that my symptoms were not totally new, but similar to symptoms I’ve had in the past, which led me to think they were the re-emergence of something from years ago, rather than a direct result of the recent traumatic event.

The next step in my inquiry was to examine what was happening during the last time I had these symptoms. Years ago, I was in a place in my life where I felt insecure about money and my future. I was in a constant state of fight or flight. The commonality between my recent accident and that time years ago was a feeling of survival-oriented fear, vulnerability and insecurity. In the past my fear was more of a financial nature. My current scare was more about physical life or death.

There are a few different treatment options for resolving symptoms resulting from latent issues that may or may not be related to the “shadow” self. One option is working with the unconscious, bypassing the cognitive mind altogether. I usually use this approach with people who don’t wish to re-engage with past issues head-on. This can be the preferred method for past traumas that were too strong to relive. This is also a good way when a past trauma was purely physical, lacking a clear mental-emotional component. I do this through working with two acupuncture channel systems that conduct Wei qi: the unconscious instinctual energy of the body. The names of these acupuncture channel systems are the Divergent Channels and the Sinew Channels. They have a strong impact on the muscles, ligaments, joints and bones. They also strongly impact the sensory organs, the brain and the sensory-motor tracts of the body in general.

The level of consciousness related to the Sinew and Divergent Channels is that of instinctual, autonomic function and reactivity: the primal awareness within us. This energy is highly tuned to the environment and its subtle energetic and pressure changes. It is a wisdom and awareness that goes beyond the conscious cognitive mind. It is unconscious, yet highly attuned. 

The detox process with the Sinew and Divergent Channels often occurs in the form of a common cold, a purge from the bowels, a mood or increased urination. There is not usually an “ah-ha” moment that occurs. Just a gradual letting go. 

There are times however where the spirit wishes the healing process to be conscious. To work with the conscious mind and the emotions rather than the instinctual unconscious mind and moods, it is necessary to work with the blood. This is usually the route my body wishes to take. There are many possible reasons for this. Because of my constitutional nature and personality, unresolved issues tend to challenge my circulatory system instead of my joints and muscles. I also tend to be a rather emotional person who is interested in evolution and spiritual growth. This is one of the reasons Classical Chinese medicine appealed to me. There’s a strong emphasis on our health, and the challenges we face in life being tools for our own spiritual cultivation. The path of life is the path of the soul. Illness and difficulty are part of this process. Yet as a healer, I first try to respect the fact that not everyone is oriented in this way. Some of us prefer to evolve on an unconscious level rather than be so consciously aware or it.

The two acupuncture channel systems that work with trauma and injury through conscious awareness (i.e. blood) are called the Luo (Connecting) vessels and the Extraordinary (Constitutional) Vessels. 

The Luo Connecting Vessels act as depositories for stressors that the body is unable to fully release. These stressors accumulate in the small blood vessels of the body, creating symptoms that range from pain, inflammation, bowel irregularities to degeneration in the elbows and teeth.

The Luo Vessels also often have a strong mental-emotional impact, influencing the way we interact socially. Common symptoms can range from addictive, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, difficulty controlling our minds and emotions to manic-depression and a sense of depression, lack of motivation or even despair. When the system of the Luo Vessels becomes saturated, this can result in a locking up of the chest. When the chest is locked, the limbs become weak, causing the mind to feel overwhelmed and unable to handle the circumstances of life.

Working on the Luo Vessels to free up the circulatory system and the stresses and accumulations that become trapped therein can sometimes lead to a deeper healing process: one that works with our basic nature, personality and ancestry.

The acupuncture channels that work with our constitutional ancestry are the Extraordinary Vessels. These channels access the matrix of the body: our Western idea of the DNA or stem cells. They are truly channels of evolution. Working with these channels is making a commitment to look deeply into ourselves; opening up to evolving beyond the habits, beliefs and tendencies that have limited us and kept us stuck. This can include thought, habits, beliefs and conditions that run in our family. 

While the Divergent Channels can be quite provoking on an unconscious physical level, the Extraordinary Vessels are slow deeply probing Channels that illuminate our true nature. For those of us who are not comfortable probing so deep into ourselves, the Extraordinary Vessels are not the best to work with. Something more physical and unconscious like the Divergent Channels are better.

The art of healing is recognizing the depth of a problem: how far it has progressed and/or how deeply within the self it emanates from. For some of us it is enough to just release the surface of the body by freeing up the muscles. For others, we need to work with the blood, and begin to examine our thoughts and habitual emotions. For those of us who want and require deep transformation, it can be necessary to work with our constitutional nature and come to appreciate and more consciously commit to it on a cellular level.

For my own healing, I began with the Divergent Channels, attempting to unblock the energy channels of my chest to relax my sinews so more blood and Qi could flow into my arms. This only had limited effect. It was when I switched to using the Extraordinary Vessels, especially the Yin Wei (linking) vessel and the Yin Qiao (stance) vessel that things began to resolve. Together these two channels work with trauma and the stagnation of blood that can result. They have a strong mental-emotional and character effect as well. The Yin Wei Vessel works with our relationship with the past, and our tendency to relive painful events, holding them in our bodies and minds, as well as recreating them in our present life. The Yin Qiao has a strong effect on the endocrine system, bones, genitals and Brain. It helps to move and break up any accumulations of body fluids or tangible substance blocking a clear, strong, empowered present relationship with oneself. It is called a “stance” vessel because of its strong impact on the way we stand up to ourselves. It treats the tendency to withdraw from life, to feel vulnerable, insecure or weak. Both channels also have a strong impact on obsessive compulsive tendencies.

After a few weeks of treatments with these channels, my symptoms disappeared. Through the process of healing I learned of my tendency to mentally and emotionally hold onto the difficult experiences of my youth. They seem to be stored deep in my bones and brain. Many of the recurring physical and emotional challenges I face as a human being have to do with my shadow side. I have a tendency to manifest things psychosomatically. My body responds so well to the Extraordinary Vessels I think because of its deep wish to evolve and learn. Each physical ailment or emotional upset becomes a chance to illuminate the dark areas of my unconscious, to become more aware of myself, my deep human drives and impulses. The Extraordinary Vessels are amongst the most empowering of all the acupuncture channels, as they help us go into the very deepest areas of ourselves, clean out what is stuck there and come to reclaim our innate power and strength. 

Nicholas Sieben, MS, L.Ac.

Nicholas is a healer who uses acupuncture and reiki to help awaken and heal. His mission is to promote greater freedom of body, mind and spirit through compassionate self-awareness. Through the use of ancient medical practices and the spiritual philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, Nicholas helps illuminate the path to healing. He is a student of the renown Taoist priest and Chinese Medical Master Jeffrey Yuen. He completed his acupuncture studies under Mr. Yuen at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, and received a B.A. from Brandeis University in Sociology and Philosophy. He has a practice in New York City.

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