A Pin-Prick A Day Keeps the Anxiety Away

Acupuncture - a Veteran's Experience
By Caitlin Elam

The number one objection to acupuncture I hear whenever I bring it up in conversation is, “Oh my God, I hate needles. Gross. No!”

Look, no one likes needles (unless you’re a sado-masochist), but there comes a time in everyone’s life where they need to calculate the risk(s) versus the reward(s) of a situation like an adult. For the art and science of acupuncture, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

I could sit and explain to you the science behind it or how this isn’t some mystical BS, but I’m not licensed. The studies are out there to satisfy any research-geek; I’m simply here to give the before/after of my own experience.

When I was given a gift certificate by my parents to an acupuncturist in my hometown, I was grateful for it; it was a nice gift/gesture. I expressed that thankfulness but internally, I was wondering at what point my parents had become senile and what my options were for nursing homes to take care of them in their old age.

Until that point, my only experiences with “eastern medicine” or “mystic healing arts” were through acupressure and World of Warcraft. With acupressure, there’s a certain amount of pressure (it’s in the name) and stretching of muscles involved; it’s easier to accept logically because there is more physicality involved to alleviate pain, much like a massage. At the time, I had sciatic pain due to carrying my then-1-year-old on my jutted-out hip all the time. One morning, I could barely move, let alone walk, and my dad booked me an appointment with his acupressurist right away. He had gone to her on the recommendation of a tennis buddy and she had helped his shoulder and back problems. The proof was in the pudding because his pain went away, and his tennis game got better (although that might have been practice, too).

The acupressure practitioner was able to get me on my feet, standing straight again and gave me practical advice about how to properly carry my daughter without harming myself. I didn’t have to go back to her ever again because the pain never returned for that problem.

But, when my parents gave me the gift certificate Christmas 2017, I sighed, rolled my eyes, accepted that this was happening, and I needed to make my peace with it. If anything, I reasoned, I would get a good nap and listen to some Yanni. On December 26th, I went with my dad and prepared myself for some cracked-out “medical” office with a washed-up doctor who went to China once, read Eat, Pray, Love, “found herself”, and came home to move into a hipster studio apartment with too many cats (if you’re curious, that number is one. One is too many cats).

I had a lot of preconceived notions about this woman and her practice before I even met her, which isn’t fair or mature (though I stand by the cat comment vehemently); this isn’t to rag on her or show you what a judgmental a-hole I can be so much as to highlight that I had no potentiality for a placebo effect. I was a skeptic through and through…that is, until I did it.

The office was a lot like a therapist’s office, but it was clean, well-kept, and the doctor (yes, she’s an actual MD) sat down and talked to me about what we’d be doing that day. She explained a little bit about the science behind her practice, where she had studied, and how, as a regular doctor, she had seen so many patients get stuck in the rut of pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures with no results. I felt a little bit better about it and thusly, lost my acupuncture virginity that day; unlike most virginity-losing experiences, however, the needle was small and I didn’t feel a thing.

For the next two weeks, I didn’t need to use any pain pills at all – not even Advil – to alleviate the daily pain onslaught of my physical disabilities. I also felt calmer even though my anxiety wasn’t something we focused on in the session. I reasoned the calm was just because I wasn’t in pain all the freaking time and therefore not so angry.

For a year I fought my butt off to get acupuncture covered by the VA Choice Program. They flatly said, “No” each time. After about a year, almost to the day, I went into my nutritionist (who was attached to my urologist for my kidney issues, which is an unfortunate side effect of my main disability) and I mentioned how well acupuncture had worked for me last time. She brightened immediately and told me about the acupuncturist the urologist (who was swiftly becoming an all-encompassing multi-service practice) had just hired. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am and I was signed up under the auspices of the urologist (who was already VA-Choice-Care-approved) to treat a medical issue with acupunture, which is the truth. Acupuncture isn’t just for anxiety or pain but also just the basic functions of the body and mainly, making them work correctly using the concept of “chi” or “flow of energy” to different systems.

I have gone, since writing this, a grand total of three times to the acupuncturist and the difference is night and day. Until that point, and even after my very first acupuncture experience over a year ago, I had just assumed the anxiety I felt on the day-to-day to be normal physical and psychological reactions to stress. I go to therapy for my PTSD and assumed that that was all I needed. My therapist, upon learning of my acupuncture appointment, said it was a marvelous idea; she told me that there are different areas of the brain and while talk-therapy helps with long-term coping skills and reasoning through past events, acupuncture deals with the physical responses to stress/anxiety/depression, alleviating them significantly.

After my first “anxiety-centric” acupuncture treatment, I walked out feeling like I was on a cloud. I didn’t think much of it until I called my father. After chatting for a little bit about nothing in particular, he asked me very frankly, “Are you on drugs, Cait?” I wasn’t and explained that I just felt calm. He said he had never heard me so measured and non-stressed in years, clearly estatic. Though he was the one who first introduced me to acupuncture, the almost instant results of my demeanor improving significantly, even over the phone, shocked him.

Acupuncture doesn’t make me a different person, nor does it erase stress because stress inevitably happens to all of us. Acupuncture, in conjunction with a good talk-therapist, unlocks your best self and helps you cope and deal with the stressors that come at you every day. Once a cynic, now I feel like a salesperson whenever a friend tells me of a physical ailment or problem with depression/anxiety. Like one of those door-to-door religious folks, armed with pamphlets, I smile and say, “Do you have a moment to sit and talk about the miracle of acupuncture? It will literally change your life.” And while I feel like kind a d-bag, I know the proof exists that it works – it’s in my overall happier disposition and lack of any anxiety attacks in the last month. Not one. It works.

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