What To Expect In Your First Acupuncture Session

Photo by  Alexa Mazzarello  on  Unsplash

At the risk of getting too personal, I think it's appropriate to preface this post by saying that I have had a lot of life changes going on in the last few months.  Actually, I’ve had a lot of life changes going on in the last year.  To be more specific, since August 12th 2016, I’ve:

  • Gotten married
  • Left New York, which has been my home for 9 years
  • Moved out of the apartment I've lived in for the last 5 years
  • Moved to India
  • Gotten pregnant
  • Had a miscarriage
  • Left my job of 7.5 years
  • Begun a new career as a blogger and entrepreneur
  • Moved to the United Kingdom

Each of those things taken alone can create a lot of stress.  Taken together in a 365 day period, they created a perfect storm of stress and anxiety that reached its climax a few weeks ago while I was at a FedEx shipping center in Brooklyn Heights.  Plunking down several hundred dollars to ship a few boxes across the Atlantic, combined with the realization that my life was about to drastically change yet again, I felt the emotion rising up in me until it had nowhere to go but out my eyeballs.  That's right.  I had a classic New York City public cry.  

I walked home, sternly reprimanding myself for my inability to clamp down, and called my friend Emily to vent/confess to her that I’d just completely lost my shit.  What kind of 31 year old woman cries in a FedEx in the middle of the afternoon? Well, she said, the kind of woman who’s just had a year that would bring any sane person to their knees.  She made me promise that I would take a break from my to-do list that afternoon, and do something nice for myself.  (We should all have friends like Emily.) 

As I was walking home, I happened to pass by City Acupuncture, a new acupuncture and reiki studio on Bedford Avenue, just a few blocks from my apartment.  It seemed fated, so I popped in.  I’d never tried either acupuncture or reiki before, and was skeptical yet curious.  The manager at the front desk gave me a thorough explanation of both treatments, and, feeling like I had nothing to lose, I booked an acupuncture appointment for the following morning.  As I walked home, I tried to open my mind to the ways in which it might be able to help me.

The Talk

I arrived for my appointment the following morning, feeling much calmer than I had the day before, relieved already that I had slotted time to take care of myself.  I sat in the waiting area and drank a cup of ginger tea.  My therapist then came to collect me and took me to a seating area where we were able to talk privately about why I had come. 

Photo by  Artem Beliaikin  on  Unsplash

She started by feeling my pulse in my wrists, then asked me a lot of questions about what was going on with me mentally and physically.  In the course of 15 minutes I was able to give her a pretty clear picture of my status.  She asked how I’d been sleeping, how my skin had been looking and feeling, whether I’d been experiencing any tightness in my chest, how much water I’d been drinking, whether I’d been eating healthy foods, whether I’d been getting any exercise and what kind.  

Before she even put any needles into my skin, I felt a huge weight lifted, just having talked to someone whose job it was to listen.  Answering her questions helped me to connect the dots between my physical and mental well-being. 

It wasn’t until I talked to her that I began to notice: my skin was inflamed and red, I was feeling tightness in my chest, I was drinking too much caffeine and too little water, and I had let my diet become a second priority - some days I’d completely forget to eat, and when I remembered, I wasn’t taking as much care as I could have to find nourishing foods.  My sleep was restless and plagued with strange dreams, and I often felt exhausted in the middle of the day, paralyzed with indecision in the face of all the things I had to get done. 

Getting Down to Business

My therapist walked me into a dimly lit, fragrant therapy room, where she instructed me to lay on a massage table, face up.  I had worn loose-fitting clothing as advised, and she asked me to roll up my jeans to expose my knees.  She sterilized the points on my body where she planned to insert the needles.  I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths as she began tapping the very fine needles into my skin.  

How many needles?  Do they hurt? 

Though I did feel a tiny prick with the insertion of each needle, it was not painful, and I was able to hold very still until she had done them all.  She did not insert them in a symmetrical way; the points on the right and left sides of my body did not mirror each other.  For instance, I had one needle on the inside of my left ankle and another on the top of my right foot.  This was the case all over my body, and it seemed she was very strategic about the points she chose, including one needle in the center of the crown of my head.  There were about 8 needles in total.  I tried to let go of my squeamishness, and steer my thoughts away from the fact that I had little needles sticking out of my skin.  After a few minutes, though, I completely forgot they were there.

OK, the needles are in.  Now what? 

She placed an lavender-filled pillow over my eyes, and gave me 35 minutes to lay there and rest.  I found myself in that rare position of being still and without distraction but not sleeping, with nothing to do but breathe in and out and let my thoughts drift.  My mind was a flurry of activity for the first few minutes, but after a while I began to feel more calm, and my thoughts grew more quiet.  

Does anything happen?

I felt a few interesting physical sensations as I was laying there.  A few times, I felt tiny muscle spasms happen at various points on my body, each lasting only a few seconds.  I had my hands resting on my belly, and towards the end of the session I had a strange sensation that they were floating up off of my body, no longer making contact with the rest of me.  Other than those two symptoms, I didn’t notice any drastic physical changes, good or bad, but perhaps the points my therapist chose were meant for mental adjustment, rather than physical. 

What do you for the remaining 35 minutes?

It’s amazing the clarity that can come to you when you have a protracted period of forced stillness and quiet.  I realized how seldom I actually give myself that kind of time.  The pervasive thought that kept finding its way to me in that 35 minutes, which I tried to hold onto when I left, was this:

I should forgive myself. 

Forgive myself for what?  While lying on that table, I realized that I am often very self-critical when I’m unable to gracefully handle the many things that are going on in my life.  Case in point: I cried in a FedEx, and then mentally beat myself up for it!  When something gets me down, I often feel guilty that I’m feeling down. 

A few months ago when I had a miscarriage, I struggled for months afterward, trying to get back to feeling normal.  I recognized that I was feeling sad, but tried to snap myself out of it because, I thought, "I'm not a sad person", and was very frustrated when I couldn't get past it.  My friend Mallory helped me to gain some clarity around this at the time, by telling me, "I think you need to separate 'I feel sad' from 'I'm a sad person'."  (We should all have friends like Mallory.) 

I frequently criticize not only my shortcomings, but my own feelings too, which, in that moment, I started to realize is very self-destructive.  So I decided right there in my acupuncture session to forgive myself for being a flawed person, and sometimes just for feeling sad and inadequate. 

The Take

I don’t know whether it was the needles, or the attentive ear of my therapist, or the 35 minutes of stillness that eased my anxiety, but I left with a much more certain feeling that everything was going to be okay.  I also walked away the determination to give myself that same kind of quiet time more often, whether in acupuncture treatment, massage, yoga, or meditation, to keep from getting so overwhelmed by my day-to-day.    

Would I try acupuncture again?  Yes, I would.  I’d be curious to see if I feel any long-term benefits from repeat sessions.  I’ve read that it can be difficult to fully feel the effects of the treatment after one session only, so it’s hard to judge whether it was the needles, the talk with my therapist, or the 35 minutes of stillness and quiet that made the difference.  Perhaps it was a combination of all three. 

I'd love to hear from those of you who have tried acupuncture over multiple sessions, and what it's done for you.  I'd also love to hear from you if you've tried acupuncture to help heal a physical ailment, and whether it brought you any relief.  Feel free to leave comments below!

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