5 Alternative Therapies for Treating Trauma | Omega

Research indicates these five alternative therapies can offer significant relief from the effects of trauma on the body and mind.

The ancient Greek word for wound is trauma. Simply defined, trauma is a deeply disturbing experience that can create extreme stress and overwhelm the body and the mind. 

About 70 percent of U.S. adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people can also develop post-traumatic stress, according to the nonprofit organization Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute.

Clinical psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has described trauma as “the body keeping score” or as somatic memories stored as visual images or physical sensations. He defines overcoming trauma as being able to feel what you feel without reentering the misery of the past.

Dealing with trauma and finding the right treatment modality is a very personal decision.

Physician Gabor Maté, a trauma expert, says that with trauma, “we lose the connection to our own essence.” He suggests the trauma is less about what happened and more about losing a connection to ourselves—feeling as though we have lost our wisdom, strength, and joy in life.

From a holistic point of view, healing from trauma means learning to come back to feeling our sense of self with its full range of emotions and physical experiences. And research is showing that many evidence-based trauma interventions—including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), craniosacral therapy, trauma-sensitive yoga, and acupuncture—can help.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This powerful multi-phase modality helps heal trauma, including sexual and physical abuse, accident trauma, and grief. It works by using left-to-right eye movements or other repeated movements along with psychotherapy to help free people from disturbing images and body sensations, debilitating emotions, and restrictive beliefs, according to Laurel Parnell, an internationally recognized clinical psychologist and expert in EMDR trauma therapy.

One of the biggest benefits of this method is that it works quickly. Studies show that up to 90 percent of trauma patients no longer have posttraumatic stress after only three 90-minute sessions. 

In addition, EMDR therapy is recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense.

In Parnell’s book Transforming Trauma, she writes, “In the hands of a highly skillful, experienced therapist, EMDR can be a power tool for healing. However, the same tool in the hands of a less skillful or incompetent therapist may not yield symptomatic relief—or worse, may cause harm.”

She recommends finding a well-trained clinician, not just someone trained in “eye movement work,” but someone with advanced training. You also may want to ask about his or her beliefs about the potential for EMDR to heal your condition. If your practitioner does not believe EMDR can help, Parnell says to look elsewhere.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

Research shows that emotional issues and trauma are linked to chronic pain and disease in the body. EFT is a self-healing method that combines elements of cognitive therapy and exposure therapy with acupressure to tap on acupuncture points throughout the body.

Clinical trials and studies in peer-reviewed journals have demonstrated that EFT is an effective treatment for phobias, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and pain.

Psychotherapist Dawson Church pioneered two pilot studies of EFT, specifically for post-traumatic stress, which led to a randomized controlled trial. The results? More than 85 percent of veterans with clinical PTSD were subclinical after six sessions of EFT, and remained so on follow up.

How does it work? Put simply, EFT tapping reduces the emotional impact of memories that trigger emotional upset.

Clinical psychologist and energy psychology expert David Feinstein has found that EFT can produce rapid and powerful results. The addition of acupressure stimulation to brief psychological exposure sends direct signals to the brain (amygdala), reducing the effect of the threat response within the body.

Craniosacral Therapy (CST)

Craniosacral therapy is a light hands-on modality that works with the entire body to help heal discomfort, pain, and trauma. Therapists place their hands over different parts of the body and monitor changes in the body’s tissues. The theory is that when a person experiences a traumatic event, the emotions connected to the event get stuck or held in the body, and this modality works to release those stored emotions. The therapy is also known to help with chronic neck and back pain, migraines, and general stress-relief.

Randomized trials have yet to find sufficient evidence to support the therapeutic effects of this subtle therapy, but many practitioners have case studies to support it.

In craniosacral therapist Kate MacKinnon's book From My Hands and Heart, she describes working with a young soldier, Mariela, who sustained a severe head injury and multiple injuries to her body while in the Army.

“When we began, Mariela was talking with a stutter, had significant memory loss, and required full assistance to get in and out of bed. She was very scared of being moved, as it caused her great pain, and the medical staff had to move her often during the day. Yet within a short period of time, Mariela began to remember our names, and looked forward to her sessions. Her memory improved, her speech began to clear, and she became more motivated to transfer herself out of bed.”

After several years of working together, Mariela continued to see improvements far beyond what her medical team thought possible.

Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TSY)

While yoga is an ancient practice with many known health benefits, including stress relief, TSY is a relatively new modality. In 2003, the TSY practice was born at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, as an adjunct therapy for trauma.

David Emerson, founder and director of yoga services for the Trauma Center, is known for coining the term “trauma-sensitive yoga.” He created the curriculum and was part of the first-of-its-kind, NIH-funded study, conducted with Bessel van der Kolk, which found that trauma-sensitive yoga can significantly reduce PTSD symptoms in those with chronic post-traumatic stress.

Incorporating yogic principles and practices, the goal of this type of yoga is to support stabilized emotions and increased tools for those dealing with emotional and behavioral issues, including trauma and post-traumatic stress. It focuses on integrating breath and meditation with a set of physical postures much like the basics of hatha yoga, with more attention to gentle movements and fewer hands-on adjustments.

Acupuncture

The Department of Veterans Affairs lists acupuncture as a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) treatment for post-traumatic stress.

The practice is a Chinese medicine energy modality that involves inserting needles into specific points in the body to help prevent or relieve health issues. Many studies have shown that it is a safe and cost-effective treatment for chronic conditions, including anxiety, sleep issues, and post-traumatic stress.

Joe C. Chang has worked as an acupuncturist and researcher in two integrative post-traumatic stress programs for the United States Army. His work has helped many veterans return to peaceful, happy civilian lives.

One project he worked on, the Veterans Team Recovery Integrated Immersion Program (Vet TRIIP), was the first to take an integrative, multi-discipline approach to treating veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, along with those from the first Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It involved close collaborations with practitioners of acupuncture and other alternative therapies, along with standard mental health care.

One participant in the program described both incredible pain and trauma from being hit many times in his left leg during combat. He was on 58 different medications—half of which were to offset side effects of the medications. After three months in the program, he no longer required psychiatric drugs or narcotic pain medications and reduced his medication load to nine.

He said he was able to sleep and no longer had pain in his leg.

“I have not felt that relaxed in a long time,” he said. “This turns you into a normal human being. You don't have to go to the outside edge of exploding. I feel that it is possible to be healed.”

© 2017 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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