Trauma is usually the result of an exceptionally stressful personal experience in which the individual‘s possibilities and resour- ces are insufficient for coping with it. This leaves long lasting traces. In the personality. In the soul. In the body. And in the energy system. The latter can provide us with valuable clues how we can touch traumatized people with Shiatsu in the best possible way. Because the traces show a certain pattern: The matrix of a trauma.
The term trauma comes from the Greek and means wound or injury. In my nearly 30 years of Shiatsu practice, I have been able to touch a great many of these in a variety of settings. I have given Shiatsu in a hospital for child psychosomatics. The background stories of the little patients can almost break your heart. Violence. Abuse. Neglect. Even more dramatic stories came to me within a project of the International Academy for Hara Shiatsu. With treated refugees, to help them with integration. Their background: War. Murder. Mass rape. Torture. Loosing the whole family. Far less emotionally challenging, but no less exciting, was my work in the rehabilitation department of a large clinic, where the focus was on physical traumas that proved resistant to therapy, simply because the psychological com- ponent was not sufficiently considered in the conventional approach.
All of these activities have led to an intense exploration of the concept of trauma, and thus to a focus in my practice, where I have been able to explore a wider variety of this so exis- tential topic, from treating incest selfcare groups to accompanying terminally ill individuals to working with the more commonly spread traumas, that can happen in one’s life.
And it is not only my essence: Per se, it can only be fuzzily predicted which events lead to a trauma for which people, because many factors are co-deciding whether it comes to the long term manifestation of a profound injury in the personality structure or not.
It depends on the individual process of becoming, on the character, on the psychological and emotional immunity, on the stability of the life circumstances, on the available resour- ces, on the resilience, on the regulatory power of the nervous system, on the age, on the stage of life, even on the ability to give one’s life a deeper form of meaning or the connec- tion to belief or spirituality. In addition, there are many other influencing factors.
NOT EVERYTHING IS A TRAUMA
It is an outdated approach, that trauma must always be one overwhelmingly tragic event. Of course, serious accidents, exposure to violence or natural disasters have a high trauma- tizing potential. One singular event (Type I Trauma) can be so shocking, can be so stressful in its intensity, that there is no possibility for the person to deal with the corresponding situation directly – and also afterwards. But also much less severe life experiences can lead to traumas, which hardly differ in their felt impact and their symptomatology. If a sum of negative experiences with a high emotional charge extends over a longer period of time, this can leave just as far-reaching traces in the body and mind (Type II Trauma) as one singular shocking event. Many of these Type II Traumas develop in childhood, because children have far fewer ways of dealing with difficult situations than adults. In my practice I could observe a steady increase of clients with Type II Traumas, especially after the begin- ning of the CoVid crisis, certainly because the setting of the CoVid crisis contained all the ingredients to bring dormant traumas to the surface.
Nevertheless, I would like to draw a clear dividing line at this point. Because the term trauma is often used in an inflationary and careless way in the general vocabulary and in the media.
It seems to be fashionable to have a trauma and one speaks far too quickly of a divorce trauma or a workplace trauma, when people experience challenging life circumstances. However, stressful situations need not necessarily lead to trauma if one remains capable of acting despite the stress and can even grow from it in the longer term. This generalized usage is unfair to all those who have experienced truly severe traumatic experiences and suffer from extensive trauma symptoms. This also applies to the terms depression or bur- nout. There is a big difference between a low mood and a real depression, just as there is a big difference between fatigue and a real burnout.
THE YIN AND YANG OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Independent of the personal situation and history of any trauatizing process, it affects our nervous system in a very specific way. The autonomic nervous system has – from the TCM point of view – a yin and a yang aspect. The yang aspect is represented by the sympathetic nervous system. It puts us in a state of heightened activity. It controls our arousal potential. The parasympathetic nervous system represents the yin aspect. It is responsible for any form of calming. As is the case with yin and yang, a dynamic and rhythmic change between these two aspects is an expression of a healthy balance and this change should take place within a certain range of tolerance. To understand this process, we can work with an image: There is a ceiling. And a floor. If activation and relaxation phases move within these limits, all is well. How far these limits are set is again an individual matter, but it determines how stress-resistant and resilient we are. If the distance between the ceiling and the floor is small, the amplitude can quickly shoot through the ceiling or drive through the floor. With a large distance, on the other hand, there is sufficient buffer to be able to absorb even large stress intensities. This window of tolerance is primarily shaped in the first years of life, above all by the relationship to close caregivers.
The characteristic of a traumatizing event is that the sympathetic nervous system shoots through the roof. A threat of any kind activates the fight, flight or freeze mechanism beyond its tolerance range, making conscious control no longer possible. The result is a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. An overwhelming feeling that leaves no room for maneuver. The sympathetic nervous system pumps energy into the body, but it cannot be converted. It is as if one were chasing high voltage through a conduction system that
is not made for it. The conduction system is completely overloaded. The fuses blow. The drama of trauma: Even when the triggering situation is over, the relieving stop signal of the body remains absent. The condition begins to manifest itself, starting from the nervous system and moving into the body and into the mind and soul. And there it can settle in and bring far-reaching consequences for the entire way of life. Over years. Over decades. The affected persons are usually integrated into everyday life in a normal way. But for them it is not a normal everyday life. It is a major challenge. Like driving with the handbrake on. It is possible. But with much more effort and with a lot of friction.
This is, of course, a very simplified representation of a trauma process, but the crucial mechanisms behave in this way and help us to understand the subject of trauma from the point of view of Shiatsu.
THE ENERGETIC STRUCTURE OF TRAUMA
Related to primary survival mechanisms, the nervous system acts in a characteristic way , regardless of the different trigger factors. And our energy system also shows specific pat- terns, as the body and our energy system cannot be separated. It is a chain reaction that begins with the kidneys. In the view of TCM, any form of uncertainty, fear or shock affects our kidneys. This in turn activates the partner organ, the bladder, which controls the sym- pathetic nervous system with its meridian course. The bladder activates the fight and flight mode – a completely normal process. Within the tolerance limit, the system can regulate itself again. But trauma is a different story.
The bladder energy shoots through the roof. The kidney energy rattles into the basement. A massive overactivation with simultaneous deeply felt fear. This is the initial situation.
The bladder has too much energy. The kidney has too little energy. As a consequence of the continuous tension of the bladder meridian, the excitation threshold of the central nervous system is significantly lower than before the traumatizing event. This is often accompanied by hypersensitivity, that can reactivate the state of anxiety stored in the kidneys even in response to small stimuli. This is referred to as hyperarousal. Even sup- posedly insignificant triggers such as a particular sound, a specific light effect, a smell, a message, or a photograph can trigger a disproportionate state of arousal. This state costs an enormous amount of energy, which is sucked out of the kidneys – our storehouse of the essence Jing.
THE ROLE OF THE METAL ELEMENT
In order to understand the progressive process of traumatization and especially post-trau- matic stress disorder (PTSD), the system of the five elements and the law of opposition times help us to gain valuable insights. The water element with the organs kidney and bladder is the child of the Metal Element with the organs lung and large intestine. If the child element is weak, the mother element takes over to protect it. In addition, the organs of the water element are closely related to the organs of the metal element through the opposition times. The kidney is in opposition time with the large intestine. The bladder with the lungs. The law of opposition times states that energy can only be in one of the two organs connected by the according opposition time. If the kidney is empty, the large intes- tine is full. If the bladder is full, the lung is empty. And in the case of traumatic experience, the bladder meridian is more than full, with numerous effects on the lungs. First, there are direct effects on the breathing. The lung Qi is weakened. In normal condition, it provides deep breathing and the lowering of the Qi. Now the Qi stagnates in the chest cavity and tends to rise. Breathing will be superficial, short. In this way, the body is supplied with less energy. Tiredness can develop. But also forms of depressive mood, in the form of sadness, deep exhaustion and a perceived meaninglessness of one‘s own existence. The common signs of a lung Qi deficiency.
Furthermore, this weakness of the lungs leads to a suboptimal distribution of the Wei-Qi. The physical and psychological immunity are fragile. A thin skin. Stimuli enter the system unfiltered and trigger further stress. The feeling of natural boundaries becomes blurred.
Conversely, the principle of opposition time is also used to fill the lungs via consciously deeper breathing, which draws energy away from the bladder. The bladder meridian can relax. And with it the hypertonus of the sympathetic nervous system. Trauma therapy also works specifically with the breath to manage existing or rising anxiety. The principle is the same. Lungs full, bladder empty. And the kidneys benefit from it. Within one element, we have the same rule: The energy is either in one organ or in the other. It cannot be in both.
It is either in the bladder. Or in the kidneys. Strong kidneys promote a sense of security and self-confidence.
THE BODY SOUL PO
Furthermore, the empty state in the lungs can lead to a detachment of the body soul
Po. In TCM, the Po is the entity that connects our consciousness to the body. It gives us the ability of somatic perception. If this connection is not strong enough, a separation between body and mind can occur. This can be the basis for the development of several conditions associated with a trauma. On the one hand, there can be a feeling of alienation from the body, depersonalization. On the other hand, an alienation from the environment can happen, which seems altered or unreal, a derealization: one loses touch with the sur- rounding reality. A detached Po can also be related to cognitive dissonance, since feelings are the language of the body and thoughts are the language of the mind, and there is no longer a coordinative connection between the two. In addition, access to feelings beco- mes more difficult, to feelings about oneself and others, which is often accompanied by a decreased interest in social life. This is referred to as numbing, emotional numbness. This difficulty in the perception of feelings often leads to the fact that persons with a detached Po – not only by traumatic experiences – look for particularly intensive bodily experiences in order to be able to feel themselves at all. This search can express itself in addictions, extreme life situations or self-destructive tendencies.
In my experience, the successful stabilization of the Po is one of the key factors in working with trauma clients. This is because the Po also gives us the strength to look positively into the future. It can lead us from a lack of perspective to new perspectives. The Po stands for what is to come. The large intestine stands for what lies behind us.
And the large intestine, like the bladder, is very tense. It stands in opposition time with the kidneys. Kidney empty. Large intestine full. This axis reflects the dynamic between insecurity and control, between security and letting go. The weaker the kidneys, the more the large intestine tries to build control mechanisms in life, to provide security, something to hold on to. A tense large intestine energy holds everything together so as not to lose control. The large intestine is the entity behind avoidance behavior. It is not uncommon to avoid situations that are classified as dangerous, threatening or unpleasant.
Mother large intestine protects child kidneys. However, in post-traumatic stress disorder, avoidance behavior can become a method and can have an impact on broad areas of life. And the large intestine is very sensitive to the slightest changes. As a precaution, it bra- ckets out all issues and possible key stimuli even remotely related to the trauma.
THE ROOTS AND THE BRANCHES
In TCM, we speak of the roots and the branches of a condition. The basic energetic struc- ture – roots – of a trauma manifests primarily through the water and metal element. The dynamics are: Kidney – -> Bladder + -> Lung – -> Large Intestine +.
The branches are the elements of wood, fire and earth. As the wood element is controlled by the metal element and nourished by the water element, very clear characteristics show up in it as well. The wandering soul Hun, which is closely connected to the Po, is especially affec- ted. In a healthy state, the wood element is rooted in the kidneys. But these are too weak for this anchor function and ensure little stability. This sends the Hun wandering.
We speak of flashbacks, of very vivid memories of the experienced situation, often in the form of nightmares. Characteristically, the Hun is very sensitive to visual triggers, being primarily connected to the eyes. However, it can also be that the Hun has been wandering too much or away, so that the memories of the experience appear to be completely erased, because just as the Po reside in the Lungs, the Hun resides in the Liver, and in TCM the Liver takes on the function of memory consciousness. In general, the liver is not doing so well…
Because wood needs water to stay flexible and alive. However, this cannot be obtained from the kidneys. In other words, the wood dries out. It loses its flexibility and becomes ea- sily inflammable. It loses the ability to adapt to changes and the fast inflammability shows up as increased irritability or aggression potential. And speaking of lack of water: This, of course, directly affects the heart, which is controlled by the water element. And the heart needs cooling because it is 90% yang. Without water, it overheats. The result: heart palpi- tations, nervousness, insomnia, concentration problems….
And the earth element? In the energetic representation of the Five Elements the earth is in the middle and not between fire element and metal element as in the classical pathologi- cal chart of the Five Elements. Due to the polarization of the other four elements, a strong imbalance arises around the center, which can hardly stabilize it. In the worst cases it even tears the center apart. With far-reaching consequences on the digestive tract and of cour- se on the psyche. The branches of post-traumatic stress disorder can be very diverse and it is not easy to find the best possible entry…
THE ROLE OF PERSONALITY AND THE CRUX OF CONCEPTS
The basic energetic dynamic between the water and metal elements affects all people similarly in the case of a traumatizing process. However, this energetic dynamic happens within a system that has individual expressions. Accordingly, this expression can shift the emphasis or the symptoms or weight them differently. This also applies to the branches wood, fire and earth. Depending on the setting, there are innumerable possibilities of entry. Nevertheless: Without a harmonization of the basic axis water and metal element it is difficult to achieve really decisive progress. The Po needs to be consolidated. The bladder meridian needs to be relaxed. The kidney needs to be filled. And the large intestine can successively let go as a result.
In the Shiatsu world, it has become trendy to consider any concepts as a limiting factor of the mind and to put intuition in the center of action. This is a shame, because it simply shows that many people simply have a hard time creating a constructive synthesis of knowing and feeling, of logic and intuition.
One is separated from the other and overemphasized. An approach that merely reflects personal preferences. For true unity comes from a fusion of opposites, an integration of yin and yang, and not from the rejection of any particular pole.
In this respect, concepts can be very helpful. Concepts are like a city plan. The city map is not the city. But it gives us a quick overview and a quick orientation. Then you have to put it aside again and be open to what the city brings in terms of experiences and surprises. Sometimes new routes emerge. Sometimes the destinations change. All well and good. But the decisive question should always be: How can I best support the people who come to me? How can I help them in the best possible way? This requires all the resources we have. Body. Soul. Mind. Intuition. Knowledge. Everything.
My intention with this article was to create a rough map of trauma energetics. Maybe you have some additions? Maybe you are more interested in this topic? Then I would like to invite you to the 1st Shiatsu Summit in Vienna. From 30.5. to 2.6. five international experts will dedicate themselves for four days to one topic: Trauma.