By Sara Calabro

Acupuncturists have a name for the time when their patients are resting with needles. They call it “cooking.” Some people call it “torture.”

A recent article on common excuses for not getting acupuncture listed fear of needles as the number-one excuse. In response to this article, a popular sentiment arose, highlighting a type of needle fear that often flies under the radar.

“I’m not afraid of the needles because I think they’re going to hurt,” shared one reader. “It’s the idea of having to lie still with them that freaks me out. What if there’s a fire? What if I have an itch? It feels claustrophobic.”

Acupuncture is usually portrayed as a blissful spa-like experience, so relaxing that it causes people to drift off into a peaceful, healing sleep. Sometimes it is. But not always, and many people have the most anxiety around the part when the needle-wielding acupuncturist leaves their side.

They are not afraid of needles. They are afraid of being left alone with them.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that not everyone feels intuitively calm at the prospect of sitting still while their bodies are bursting with needles. And yet this barrier to more people committing to acupuncture tends to be ignored or misunderstood.

Two keys to making needle time a happy time

Remember that you are not stuck

People commonly assume that they cannot move once the acupuncture needles are in place. Either the acupuncturist told them this or they heard it from a fellow acupuncture goer. Confronted with this non-negotiable ban on moving, many feel as though they are literally pinned in place. This understandably leads to a lot of anxiety and out-of-control feelings.

The thing is, it’s not really true.

It is generally wise to remain still as long as you’re comfortable. Certain points can be a little painful if the needle moves around too much. But hey, sometimes you have to move. Sometimes you have an itch.

Moving your body while acupuncture needles are in place is not going to kill you. The pain is nothing excruciating, usually just a passing twinge that immediately subsides. And with some points, you could wave your arms and kick your legs in the air without feeling a thing. If you have an itch, it’s better to scratch it than to lie there in agony.

Another thing that’s better than lying in agony is taking the needle out.

Popular thinking is that only acupuncturists can touch the needles, that something very very bad will fall upon those who break this cardinal rule. For the most part, needles should remain the domain of the acupuncturist. However, if a certain needle is really bugging you, just take it out.

Your acupuncturist won’t scold you. She’ll be much happier to hear that you removed a needle than that you were suffering the whole time. And you won’t mess up the treatment. Silently stewing and counting the seconds until your time is up will be a lot more detrimental than going minus one needle.

Remember to breathe

It sounds simple but it is so important to acupuncture being enjoyable and effective, and so many people forget to do it.

Sometimes “don’t move” is taken so literally that people unknowingly hold their breath. This is not only unnecessary but it also increases anxiety and counteracts the effects of the acupuncture treatment.

From an acupuncture perspective, many ailments are caused by stagnation. Things are stuck, not moving as smoothly as they should. This being the case, the last thing you want to do is hold your breath. It just further inhibits flow. It creates more stuckness. It exacerbates the tension that you walked in the door hoping to alleviate.

After remembering that you are not a prisoner, the number-one thing you can do to decrease anxiety during acupuncture, and therefore achieve optimal results from the treatment, is breathe.

If I’m still with patients when they start feeling anxious, I’ll sometimes place my hand on their abdomen and encourage them to breathe into my hand. You can do this yourself after the acupuncturist leaves.

Just place one hand on your abdomen—remembering that adjusting your arm slightly to do this is not going to cause irreparable damage—and focus on breathing into that area. Concentrate on feeling your hand rise and fall with the steady rhythm of your breath. It really is amazing how distracting and calming this can be.

Acupuncture is supposed to decrease, not cause, tension and anxiety. You are free and you can breathe. Remember those two things and you may actually cross over to that unfathomable place where acupuncture becomes nap time.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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