Me, traumatized? Don’t be silly! So many people out there had it way worse! I’ll be fine. Nothing to see here…move along…
This just about sums up my understanding of trauma until the year 2020. In other words, I was clueless. I remember when I first heard a student talk about something called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). I remember this because, whereas it was easy for me to trivialize my own trauma (see above), I could not do the same to her.
This student had plateaued with her qigong practice and was asking me for help. Around the same time, another student came to me with a similar problem. In both cases, their health issues simply were not improving, and this totally baffled me.
When students don’t get results with qigong, it’s usually because:
- They’re practicing incorrectly.
- They’re not practicing enough.
- They’ve got a hidden blockage.
Both of these students were practicing correctly and at a sufficient dosage. That left option 3 as the only explanation. I had to find out more, and thus began my journey down the rabbit hole of modern trauma research.
Today, the study of trapped trauma has become a major part of my life and my teachings. Let me give you an idea how significant my research has been:
I believe that qigong is powerful medicine if we want to heal from trauma. But if we don’t understand trauma and adjust our qigong practice accordingly, then we may plateau, just like my students did. In fact, I myself did something similar.
At the end of this article I’ll give you 13 tips to make your qigong practice more productive when dealing with trapped trauma. Follow these tips and you’ll avoid the mistakes that I made.
What is Trauma?
You’ve probably seen the word “trauma” popping up more often lately. That’s largely because Dr. Besser van der Kolk, M.D., wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score. This book is over 400 pages long and contains many stories of abuse that are potentially triggering. Doesn’t exactly seem like the recipe for a bestseller, does it?
And yet, this book has been on the NY Times bestseller list for nearly 2 years. As a new nonfiction author who has just done his first lap through the world of publishing, I fully appreciate how incredible this is. The book’s success shows that people are starving for quality information about trauma. I know I was.
Here’s what van der Kolk has to say about trauma:
…trauma is specifically an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
When you think of trauma, think of an overwhelmed nervous system rather than the event itself. Child abuse is an obvious example. The event might be 3 decades in the past and may not even be accessible to conscious memory, and yet the nervous system can still be overwhelmed years later.
Seemingly insignificant events can also be traumatizing if they overwhelm the nervous system. For example, at the age of 3, I wandered off when my babysitter wasn’t looking. I walked about a half mile into a completely foreign suburban neighborhood that we were visiting. Long story short, some adults found me, called the police, and after a ride in the patrol car, I was reunited with my anxious parents.
Shit happens, right? Kids get lost in malls and airports. The question we should be asking, however, is whether or not the event overwhelmed the child’s nervous system. In my case, it did.
If something as significant as child abuse can remain hidden for decades, imagine all the less-obvious traumas that you are probably trivializing. And the traumas may not even be from childhood; a series of smaller traumas in adulthood can also overwhelm the nervous system.
Complex PTSD (CPTSD)
If you’ve read my book or taken any of my classes, then you know about my battles with depression and anxiety. My depression was severe and debilitating. I have journal entries from my teenage years that show clear signs of depression, I was officially diagnosed in my 20s, and if not for qigong, I would likely be dead.
But what if my diagnosis was wrong all along? What if depression and anxiety were just downstream symptoms of an older problem further upstream? What if I was actually dealing with Complex PTSD all along?
According to PsychCentral, symptoms of CPTSD often include the same types of symptoms seen with PTSD, such as:
- recurrent and intrusive thoughts or dreams
- mental and physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic event
- avoidance of people, places, things, or events that remind you of the trauma
- memory loss
- negative thoughts toward yourself or the world
- bad moods that stick around
- detachment and disinterest
- difficulty showing positive emotion
- hypervigilance, or being on “high alert”
- trouble concentrating
- startling easily
- trouble sleeping
If you live with CPTSD, you could also have more severe symptoms of Disturbances of Self-Organization (DSO), like:
- a negative view of yourself
- dissociation, or disconnecting from yourself and your emotions
- emotions that feel “out of control”
- relationship difficulties
- loss of your belief system
- difficulty recognizing reality
For many of you reading this, these symptoms may hit home. I know they did for me. Even before the pandemic, CPTSD was a growing epidemic. Covid has made everything much, much worse.
Holy Shit, I have CPTSD!
In news that will surprise absolutely no one, people are now developing trauma-like symptoms as the pandemic wears on. The article explains that experiencing the world as profoundly unsafe can overwhelm the nervous system and this can lead to CPTSD. And when our nervous system is overwhelmed, it can have long-lasting consequences.
For me, the pandemic triggered a decades-old sense of danger that I could not consciously explain. During this time, I was also doing a lot of zuo chan or sitting meditation in conjunction with my regular qigong practice. The combination of these two things — the feeling of danger from the pandemic plus the practice of sitting meditation — caused repressed memories to surface in my psyche.
Childhood trauma can be trapped in your tissues whether you realize it or not. I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until late 2020 that I started to make sense of what happened to me.
What Happened to Me
Earlier, I mentioned that I exhibited symptoms of depression back in my teenage years. But my trauma goes back even farther, as I discovered when I went through an intense trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This strange therapy, which is half neuroscience and half magic, helped me to access memories of childhood trauma that I had repressed for decades.
I’m not yet ready to talk openly about this trauma. For now, I’ll just mention that it involved a teacher who was also a family friend. This is relevant to our discussion about trauma, as you’ll see in a moment.
I’ve written at length about how I left my qigong teacher of 17 years over a sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by one of his certified instructors. I even talked about the death threats I received after blowing the whistle on the scandal. But what I’ve never mentioned — because I wasn’t yet aware of it — was how the scandal triggered my own childhood trauma. To leave your teacher of 17 years, who had formerly been your hero, and then to be attacked and libeled by him afterward — this might traumatize anyone. In my case, it was even worse because it triggered something from my childhood, something that also involved a male teacher and betrayal and abuse.
Qigong managed my trauma quite well for decades. In fact, it worked so well that I didn’t even know I was dealing with childhood trauma. Even after I left my teacher, I was okay for a few years. During that time, I successfully navigated the stress of a divorce, the closing of my qigong studio, the death of my grandmother, and a back injury. Yay for qigong!
Then the pandemic hit, and it turned out to be the straw that broke my nervous system’s back.
One day, as I was sitting in meditation, I had a sudden “knowing”. I find it impossible to describe the experience, but I said these words aloud to myself afterward: “We’re going to have to look at it someday.”
I realized that I needed help. I knew a little about trauma by this point in time, so I started looking for trauma-informed therapists. I tried several different therapies and therapists with varying degrees of success. Eventually, I was “diagnosed” with CPTSD.
I put that word in quotation marks because, unfortunately, CPTSD is still not an official diagnosis in the United States. In other words, mental health professionals still have no choice but to diagnose me with depression and/or anxiety because CPTSD is not yet an option. Nevertheless, one of my therapists made it clear that I had all the symptoms and signs of CPTSD.
In his book, Dr. van der Kolk talks about how he and his colleagues advocated for the inclusion of something called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) back in 2011. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) rejected his request, citing “no known evidence” as their reason. But van der Kok had provided considerable evidence even as far back as 2011. Today, Dr. van der Kolk and his colleagues have amassed a large body of evidence that, unfortunately, still has not been accepted by the APA.
However, the International Classification of Diseases, version 11 (ICD-11) published in 2018 does recognize CPTSD as a mental health disorder. Ahem, so I guess there’s evidence after all!
What’s in a Diagnosis?
Mental health diagnoses are tricky and ever-changing. For example, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t officially added to the DSM until 1980. But the problem had existed long before.
Everyone has heard the term “shell shocked”. This term was first adopted after WW1. Originally, doctors thought that there had been some damage to the brain that caused soldiers to experience insomnia, amnesia, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and noise hypersensitivity. Some of these poor men were branded as weak and even executed for military cowardice.
Today, we know that they were not cowards, nor were their brains damaged. Or rather, their brains were damaged, but not by the force of the artillery. Rather, the central nervous system, which includes the brain, was damaged by the experience of the war.
DTD and CPTSD are not yet official diagnoses in the U.S., but they will be one day, just like PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association can only resist for so long. I predict that the success of Dr. van der Kolk’s book will force them to take another look at trauma and include new diagnoses in the next edition of the DSM.
At that point, will my decades-old diagnosis shift from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) to something like CPTSD or DTD? Who knows. In the end, a diagnosis is only a label. What really matters is what we do to heal.
What Can We Do to Heal?
I decided to tell a bit of my trauma story in this post for one main reason: Because I hope it will help some of you to acknowledge your own trauma.
Don’t trivialize your trauma the way I did. In fact, trivializing trauma is a symptom of trauma! So if your first reaction is to dismiss what happened to you, then it probably means you need to take a closer look at it.
With the tips and resources below, you will be well prepared to heal your own trauma. Be warned, however, that you might feel resistance when digging in to your trauma. Believe me, I get it! But if you’re ready to do the work, then the resources below will help!
Books to Read:
Here are a few books that I think are worth reading. If you suspect that you’re dealing with trapped trauma, or if you know someone who might be dealing with it, then knowledge is power. These books will give you a crash course into the topic of trapped trauma.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
- Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic: How Trauma Works and How We Can Heal From It by Paul Conti M.D.
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D
- Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love That Heals Fear and Shame by Tara Brach
What I find fascinating is that virtually all of the books I’ve read on trauma mention qigong as a therapy. They don’t just mention tai chi, meditation, or yoga – but qigong specifically. This is great news for us!
Therapies to Explore:
Here are some of the therapies that I have personally tried. Of these, I found that Internal Family Systems worked the best for me. Your experience might be different. If you choose to try EMDR, make sure to do it with a skilled professional. Whatever you do, DO NOT try to do it on your own. You’ve been warned!
If You’re in Crisis Right Now
If you know my story, then you know that I almost killed myself in my 20s. Back then, I had no clue about suicide prevention. I was lucky to survive.
The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saves lives. They are amazingly helpful if you need to talk. Call this number immediately: (800) 273-8255.
If you don’t feel like calling, then click here and look for the LIVE CHAT button. It’s available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, in both English and Spanish.
Or if you’re outside of the US, then please click here for a list of international hotlines.
13 Tips for Healing Trauma with Qigong:
Qigong heals trauma, but there are things we can do to make it more efficient. This is an area that I am actively studying, but below are my findings so far. I will remind you that I am not a licensed psychologist nor a psychiatrist. However, I am an expert in qigong.
If you are new to qigong, or new to my style of qigong, then some of these tips may not make sense. That’s okay. There’s enough here for you to play with no matter what.
Here are my tips, in no particular order:
Tip #1: Try the Flowing Zen 5-Phase Routine, especially if you’ve been unsuccessful in treating your trapped trauma with qigong. You can learn it in my book. This routine is a game-changer for many people, even if they’ve been doing qigong for decades. The entire routine only takes 10-15 minutes and it is an easy way to implement the most important qigong secrets into your daily practice.
Tip #2: Look around in all directions (up and down too) immediately before your qigong session. Move the head and eyes slowly, as if scanning for danger. You are gently telling your nervous system that you are safe and that there are no predators nearby. This also works for yoga, tai chi, and sitting meditation.
Tip #3: Use the qigong exercise called Shaking the Tree to help you relax before your session. If you don’t know this exercise, then you can learn it for free here. This exercise anchors the Monkey Mind into a physical movement and gives it a way to release stored tension. Try the exercise by itself for 2 minutes and you’ll feel the difference. Then incorporate the same technique into the beginning of your qigong session.
Tip #4: Use pandiculation. When you wake up in the morning or after a good nap and then stretch randomly and yawn – that’s pandiculation. Try using artificial pandiculation before a qigong session. Just pretend you’re waking up from the world’s best summer nap and then stretch and move spontaneously for 10-15 seconds.
Tip #5: Try to actively yawn. This goes hand-in-hand with pandiculation, and they complement each other. You can stimulate a yawn by opening your mouth as wide as you can and then trying to say the letter “R” 3-4 times. Keep your mouth wide open as you do this. In a few seconds, you should feel the urge to yawn. Encourage that yawn! This will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and restore), which will calm you down before even doing any qigong!
Tip #6: Keep the eyes open or half-open for most of your qigong session. Closing the eyes may tense up the nervous system because it can make you feel vulnerable. If you are practicing in a public place like a park, then this is even more important.
Tip #7: Choose qigong exercises with vocalizations, like Punching with Wide Eyes, One Finger Zen, or the 18 Arhats. If you don’t know any of these, then you can add a gentle sighing sound (e.g. “ahhhhh) to any of the techniques that you know. Use this vocalization on half or all of the exhalations. Or you can use techniques from other schools of qigong that have vocalizations.
Tip #8: Use Five Animal Play 1-2 times per week with full privacy. If you don’t know Five Animal Play yet, just use Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow, but try to encourage spontaneous vocalizations. Privacy is key here. If you inhibit yourself for fear of being heard by your spouse or your neighbors, it won’t work as well.
Tip #9: Check your jaw tension throughout your session. Get in the habit of releasing that tension whenever it creeps back in (which it will). Wiggle your jaw in all directions, and also loosen your tongue. Doing this will relax your vagus nerve, which in turn will help to unwind your nervous system.
Tip #10: Close at the mingmen vital point instead of dantian at the end of the session. Or you can consolidate at dantian first, then finish with mingmen. If you don’t know how to do this, then use Guideline #3 here.
Tip #11: Before and/or during your session, talk gently to yourself as if talking to a child. Say something like, “Don’t worry kiddo, you are safe now,” or “It’s going to be okay.” Choose words that you yourself might use to console a child who just went through a traumatic experience. Or if you can’t imagine a child, then imagine how you would talk to an animal that was recently frightened. You don’t need to speak out loud, but you certainly can.
Tip #12: Use One Finger Zen before and after a session, or on its own. You can learn how to do this here. The idea is to bring your awareness into your body and, if you have some qigong skill, into your energy flow. Try to feel the qi in your index finger as you walk around before and after your session.
Tip #13: Start with the Closing Sequence and focus on the sensations of the self-massage. Normally, we close our session like this, but we can also use it as an opening sequence. The somatic nature of the self-massage helps to bring us out of our heads and into our bodies. After doing the Closing Sequence, begin the 5-Phase Routine as normal (ending with the Closing Sequence again in Phase 5).
Try some of these tips and let me know how it goes. Did you find one of them particularly helpful? Your feedback will help me to further develop my theories about qigong and trauma.
I’ve touched on many important trauma-related subjects in this post. I mean, each of the subheadings could be a separate blog post on its own! Rest assured that this is just the beginning of our trauma conversation. Expect more blog posts diving deeper into the topic of trauma and qigong.
And please remember that I am not a doctor or a therapist. This article is for informational purposes only, and nothing is meant to be used as professional or medical advice. Be well and take care of yourself! From the heart, Sifu Anthony