music is medicine for the soul_fullBy Joy Andrews

Think of your favorite song. The song that brings a smile to your face. The one you can’t help but close your eyes and sway your head to.

While grooving to this song, your brain lights up and sends mood-lifting chemical messages down your spine and out to the rest of your body. Listening to your favorite song is a life-affirming, symptom-canceling, cell-generating moment. It is medicine.

We all need more of this special kind of medicine—which does not have to be a song, by the way. The medicine I’m talking about is whatever gets you going. Maybe that’s music, maybe it’s playing or watching sports, or gardening, or listening to your child talk to her imaginary friend.

It is easy to forget these simple pleasures in life, especially when we’re wrestling with pain or illness. But if my short time in the acupuncture world (I’ll graduate from acupuncture school next year) has taught me nothing else, it’s that times of physical and emotional hardship are when it’s extra important to remember the good stuff.

Acupuncture shifts our attention in a positive direction

None of this is rocket science, but nor is it necessarily intuitive.

The first time I received acupuncture, the acupuncturist told me that her goal was to discover what my body was doing well. Well? Aren’t doctors supposed to focus on the sick parts? She said the idea was to find what was working, support that, and encourage it to spread to the rest of my body.

Honestly, this bothered me a little. I hadn’t gone out of my way to seek help from a medicine I’d never tried before only to have my symptoms ignored.

I wanted a sounding board. I wanted someone to whom I could relay my laundry list of symptoms, who would listen intently and maybe even give me a slightly scary diagnosis in return—just bad enough so I could tell my friends and family, ask for some sympathy, and then get regular relaxing acupuncture treatments. I felt unheard when she told me she would focus on the good.

Now that I’m on the other side of things, I understand why acupuncturists like to look on the bright side.

As clinical interns at Tai Sophia Institute, where I’m in school, we’re taught to ask patients what is flourishing in their lives. Their responses provide important diagnostic information.

If a patient lights up and proceeds to tell me all about his favorite things, we’ve already jumpstarted the healing process. I now have insight into that patient’s medicine for the soul and can offer an initial prescription: “Do more of that!”

On the other hand, if the patient can’t think of a single thing that’s flourishing in his life, it becomes an opportunity for us to work together on unpacking whatever he’s holding onto physically or emotionally. From there, we can customize treatment and self-care techniques that allow him to make space for fulfillment.

When this conversation happens with reverse emphasis—prioritizing what’s going badly—it’s easy to fall into a pattern of symptom management. Relief from symptoms is nice but it doesn’t move you any closer to understanding the root of your discomfort, which is the primary focus of acupuncture.

When you begin with a reference point for what feels good, now there’s something to work towards rather than just trying to get rid of everything.

By focusing on what’s flourishing in our lives, we constantly remind ourselves of our inherent potential. This shift toward a positive mindset can be remarkably healing.

Putting acupuncture theories to the test

I recently put this to the test, when the brother of one of my closest friends passed away unexpectedly.

I was hit by this news with what felt like waves of grief. Over the course of three days, I had bouts of ugly crying, complete with red nose, snot overload, hyperventilating and hours in bed. On the third day, I nearly canceled plans to do dinner and a concert for another friend’s birthday. I wasn’t sure I could make it through the evening without losing it.

Then I remembered what I tell my patients: Focus on what’s flourishing in your life.

It wasn’t easy, but I realized that despite the tragedy of my friend’s brother passing, many things in my life actually were uplifting. I had my husband and friends who were coming together to enjoy food, drink and music. I chose to focus on these flourishing elements.

That night moved my grief like nothing else. I felt the music, as it was blaring through me, clear my sinus obstruction and headache, and lighten my heavy limbs. As those mood-lifting chemical messages made their way through my body, I felt less weighed down by sadness.

This doesn’t mean I’m not still sad. But the music and companionship helped shift my experience of the sadness into something that feels manageable. Sometimes that’s the best we can do—and sometimes it’s enough.

Photo by Sara Calabro

joy andrews_acutake contributorJoy Andrews is an acupuncture student at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, MD. She will graduate in 2013. Until then, she is working as an intern and accepting new patients at the school’s clinic. Read more about her on her blog, The Joy of Acupuncture.

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