Individual Reactions to Traumatic Stress

Stephen Messer, ND, DHANP

On September 11, the day of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York and the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, DC, teaching homeopathy at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine was hardly “business as usual.” We all, students and instructors, were going through our day in varying states of shock. The emotional stress was palpable in the air, as I am sure it was in most places in our country.

I had prepared a lecture on homeopathic case-taking for that day’s class, but considering what had just occurred, I shelved that lecture. Instead, we discussed first-aid remedies that the students could use with their family and friends who had been traumatized emotionally by the events of the day. I began first with a case I remembered from our Southwest College teaching clinic. One day, a few months earlier, I had been sitting in our small discussion room at the clinic with the five student doctors who were on my shift that afternoon. We had already seen all the afternoon’s patients and were finishing up, discussing the cases of the day and what we could learn from them.

The door to the conference room opened and one of our fellow student docs from another shift poked her head in. “I think I need a remedy,” she said. “Would you have time to help me?” We did have time, and rather than bring her into our exam room and then have the students observe on the closed-circuit TV, I suggested that she sit down with us and tell us a bit about what was happening. Suzie had been in an automobile accident the previous week and was suffering from the after-effects. After Suzie told us the general outline of how the other car had pulled out in front of her and how she had broadsided it, and that she had pretty much been unable to function in the week since then, I stopped her and turned to the student docs: “So what remedy do you think we are going to give Suzie for the after-effects of this accident?” Of course, this was a trick question. I wondered whether the students could see that there was no way to prescribe, since we didn’t know Suzie‘s individual reaction to this trauma yet.

The students reacted as beginners often do to a question like this. Each one agreed that Arnica was the remedy we should consider for this case. Arnica is the premier homeopathic remedy for cases where people have been physically traumatized and feel achy, sore, and bruised all over their body. They are usually sensitive to being touched and don’t want people to get too close to them because of that. If they have been affected mentally by the trauma, they often express the feeling that they are quite well even though they clearly are not.

In the language of the homeopathic materia medica they “send the doctor away, saying they are quite well.” I didn’t know enough about the case yet, but it didn’t seem that Suzie was in that state. I asked Suzie to tell us the details of how she was feeling and in what way things were so hard for her since the accident. She reported that she was “out of it.” While shopping, she had meant to write a check and instead pulled out her schedule book; and it didn’t even register with her that it was not her checkbook. The orthopedist she saw that morning had asked for her phone number and she had written her old number from nine months earlier without even realizing that this was no longer her number. She said these were just a few examples of her mental dullness and confusion since the accident. I asked her what exactly she had felt when her car hit the other car, and she reported that she was really frightened then as well as afterwards. Again, I turned to the students and asked which remedy we should give. In the ensuing discussion the students appropriately said that the symptom of “ailments from fright” was very important. Because of this, the next choice of the group was to give Aconite, a medicine known to help those who have developed troubles after being frightened.

Patients who will respond to Aconite may develop a high fever, restlessness, insomnia, and a terrified appearance and behavior after a fright. Or they may simply be in a psychological state of extreme fear and agitation. Aconite is considered an important first-aid remedy because such a psychological state is often seen after a fright. This was not the case in Suzie‘s presentation. I asked the students to think a little deeper about this situation. I had them look up “Fright, ailments from,” in the Mind chapter of Kent‘s Repertory.” There are nine bold remedies in that rubric, and I encouraged them to consider those remedies first.

It wasn’t long before the group came up with a remedy they weren’t all that familiar with, Phosphoric acid. James Kent, in his Lectures on Homeopathic Materia Medica, says of Phosphoric acid: “Mental enfeeblement” is the thought that will come into the mind when considering what the Phosphoric acid patient says, does and looks.

The mind seems tired. When questioned he answers slowly or does not speak, but only looks at the questioner. He is too tired to talk or even think. He says: “Don’t talk to me; let me alone.” In every case we find the mental symptoms are the first to develop … He says he is all right physically, can work, can exercise even violently; but the mind is tired, there is mental apathy, he cannot add up a column of figures, cannot read the newspaper and carry the trend of thought, cannot connect circumstances. He forgets the names of those in his family; a business man forgets the names of his clerks; he is in confusion. Yet he can exercise, can go out and walk; the weakness in the muscles will come later. We all decided that Suzie‘s individual reaction to the trauma of the auto accident fit this picture of Phosphoric acid best and we prescribed a dose of Phosphoric acid 1M. Suzie reported that by the next day, she was very much improved and back to normal.

The reason I thought to mention this case in class on that morning of September 11 is that even in first-aid situations, homeopathy is best prescribed through an individualization of each prescription. We can help people a lot with homeopathic prescribing, but the best remedy will be the one that fits their particular reaction to the trauma. With this in mind, we discussed in class some of the most frequently used first-aid medicines for psychological trauma.

In addition, many people will respond to trauma in a way that is more in line with their chronic or constitutional state, and instead of a first-aid remedy they will need another dose of their “constitutional medicine.” They should consult their homeopathic practitioner. The students felt that many people could be helped with homeopathic psychological first aid and were especially glad for the review that Tuesday morning.