Once a week, I become a human pincushion, with dozens of delicate, silvery needles poking out of my skin at odd angles. My acupuncturist shines a warm light on me and plays soothing music. I used to be afraid of needles, but these tiny ones don’t hurt. Instead, I feel like I’m floating. When I miss a week, I don’t function well.
I originally began acupuncture for chronic pain from degenerative disk disease, Lyme disease, and repetitive strain injury. But acupuncture is meant to treat the whole body, and after a while, I started to notice mental health benefits as well.
My depression creates a lot of circular, negative thinking, obsessive worrying, and resentments over small slights. I get lost in the noise of these thoughts and can’t see my way out.
I look terrible. I hate my hair. I feel fat. Why did I say that? Did that sound stupid? Why can’t I manage to get anything right? Why does everything work out for others and not for me? What did that person really mean? Do they hate me? Was that person making a joke or putting me down?
I often walk into an acupuncture session in the grip of obsessive thinking and leave feeling clear and balanced. I can’t say this peaceful feeling lasts forever, but my treatments definitely help me cope with my most painful emotions.
In traditional Chinese acupuncture, the body is divided into meridians, which are related to different organ systems, such as the liver and the heart. Energy (qi) flows through all the meridians, and the acupuncture points are spots along the meridians where energy collects. The goal is to keep the energy of the different systems balanced.
For depression, my acupuncturist uses several points in the scalp, relating to the “Governing Vessel” meridian, which connects the brain with various organs. He inserts needles into a few points related to the heart meridian for anxiety. Then, he stimulates several points for the liver to release blocked energy. Another acupuncturist I’ve seen utilizes points for the spleen and the stomach—each practitioner has a different philosophy and tailors a specific approach for every patient.
After treating points on both sides of my body, I get an acupressure massage, which stimulates the points in a less direct way while relaxing the muscles. My depressed and anxious thinking creates a lot of muscle tension, which creates more pain. The pain makes me more depressed — It’s a vicious cycle!
Although releasing muscle tension doesn’t solve the underlying problems that created the depression in the first place, it helps to clear out the detritus of my emotions. By comparison, I’ve had therapy sessions where I’ve started discussing a painful topic towards the end of the appointment, and there wasn’t enough time to finish. I left in tears while trying to avoid crying conspicuously on public transportation. But with acupuncture, I always leave feeling calm and having a greater sense of clarity.
For me, acupuncture is a great addition to traditional talk therapy. The gentle, healing aspects of acupuncture soothes the pain of feelings brought up in treatment. Sometimes, you can quiet your mind by treating your body.
Acupuncture doesn’t have to be expensive. Many Chinese medicine schools have clinics where you can get reduced-price treatments. There are community-based acupuncture centers that offer low-cost treatment in exchange for a less private setting; you might be treated in a large room rather than an office. Certain pain clinics, pain doctors, and physiotherapy centers offer acupuncture. Additionally, it’s worth checking your insurance policy, as acupuncture may be reimbursed in some settings but not others.
Choosing an acupuncturist is a bit like choosing a therapist—you may have to try more than one to get the right fit. There are many different schools and techniques, including Chinese, Japanese, trigger point, Five Element, and others. The personality of the therapist is also important; I tried three practitioners before I found one I trusted, and with whom I felt safe. (Trust is important if the person is going to stick you with needles!)
Acupuncture works gradually, so it might take a few sessions to feel benefits. With the right practitioner, it can be an amazing, mind-body healing experience.
Vicki Novinsky writes and draws cartoons about living with Lyme disease, autoimmune thyroid disease, and other chronic illnesses. Check out her blog at missdiagnoses.com.