Today's missive is about healing cues (my term) -- messages from your body about what it needs to get well. If you follow them, they will lead you toward healing. If you ignore them, you will stay where you are or end up someplace less pleasant.
Healing cues are the YOU part of acupuncture therapy. This article includes five stories about them.
To start, let me try to define what healing is. Over millions of years of evolutionary grooming, the human being has been tweaked and tailored by its natural environment with one simple purpose - to live long enough to produce and grow viable progeny. The result is a specific set of human functions, forms, and behaviors well-suited to achieving that purpose.
These are our default settings. They're not quite perfect, they won't allow you to do everything you may want to do (work 20 hour days, climb mountains, and live to 120 years old), but they are excellent when used for their intended purpose.
Disease is what happens when function and/or form are compromised, usually by suboptimal behavior or conditions. Like when overuse causes tissue injury, overconsumption causes metabolic disease, or an immune-evading virus causes chronic infection. Healing is the process of restoring default settings.
By and large, your body wants to heal (remember, default settings are the best way to achieve its purpose). When a disturbance occurs, it has ways of self-correcting, and if some action is required on your part, it will let you know. For example, it will give you signals of hunger when it needs food and signals of pain when it comes into contact with something injurious and needs you to move away.
Emotions are meant to be signals as well - a product of your unconscious mind and its assessment of your environment - which motivate you to act in a way that avoids harm and/or yields benefit. Fear signals you to run away from an approaching lion, disgust signals you to avoid touching a maggot-infested surface, anger signals you to fight a lunging enemy, love signals you to get closer to a nurturing partner, etc. Emotions should arise when needed, find appropriate expression, and subside when they've served their purpose.
These are all examples of cues, effects that prompt you to do something, in this case, something that promotes or protects your wellbeing. What can happen sometimes (oftentimes in the industrialized world), is that the cues fail to come through clearly, or you fail to listen to them.
When the body is unable to self-correct, obviously there will be problems. That's why most folks come in to see us for acupuncture for the first time - they want help with a problem that's not going away. They might not know it yet, but what acupuncture is going to do (as long as it's still possible) is restore default settings by restoring and facilitating the body's self-correcting mechanisms. What happens next is rarely complete resolution of the problem, and it's not always even relief. What happens next is that the body's healing cues become clearer. The cues that were malfunctioning begin to wake up, the cues that had faded into the background become louder and less obscured by noise, and sometimes even the long-ignored cues become more insistent.
Now I'll repeat something I've already said: If you follow the cues, they will lead you toward healing. If you ignore them, you will stay where you are or end up someplace less pleasant. Healing cues are the YOU part of acupuncture therapy.
If you feel hungry after acupuncture, eat. If you feel tired, sleep. If you feel a little disgusted by a type of food or behavior, avoid it. If you feel angry, go into your bedroom alone, grab a pillow, and hit the bed a few rounds. If you feel sad, cry. I suggest that you do these things in moderation (a general rule in acupuncture's medicine), but do them. They will lead you toward healing.
Once the healing path is illuminated, Hillary and I cannot walk it for you. But we do walk it with you. It's our job to help you identify and interpret the healing cues, and we can help you come up with clever ways of following them.
The rest of this missive is five short stories from our clinic, examples of healing cues that have emerged for folks during acupuncture therapy. I hope they help make the idea more concrete.
(Some of the names have been changed for reasons of privacy.)
Natalie came in to see us for headaches, not debilitating, but still significant. They affected her at home and at work. She had a stressful job where she worked from the moment she woke to the moment she went to bed. Her headaches wouldn't come on strong until the afternoons and evenings, so she would be able to push hard most of the day. Her first acupuncture treatments brought her pain down a few notches, but they also made her feel exhausted. So we talked to her about healing cues - maybe her body was trying to get her to take a break, rest for once. We suggested that, over the next month, she become a champion rester. Like everything she did, she went for it 100%. She took breaks at work (even went down to part time), stopped working well before bed, and took naps. Her headaches went away. When she went back to work full time, she continued to take breaks and leave mornings and evenings work-free.
Natalie was fortunate to have a boss who valued her, wanted her well, and was willing to give her time off to get there. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Jodi came in for fatigue and weight loss. I usually tell folks that acupuncture can't induce weight loss on its own; a multi-disciplinary approach is required, including, most importantly, dietary therapy. But acupuncture can help. How? Through healing cues. The world always sent Jodi messages that her appetite was too big, she should stop eating so much. But Jodi had no appetite. She skipped meals all the time. Most days, she only ate dinner. Once Jodi started acupuncture, she started getting a different message - hunger! We suggested that her body was telling her what it needed, and she should follow its cue. We also made sure to talk to her about eating slowly and listening to her stomach for cues about when to stop. She ate regularly, stopped skipping meals, and her appetite and energy came back. We didn't see her long enough to know if she was able to successfully lose weight, but at least she finally had energy to tackle the problem.
The opposite scenario can also happen. If a person tends to eat too much, their body's signals of fullness can start to feel stronger, and even come on more quickly, after acupuncture therapy.
Rick came to see us for depression and fatigue. He could barely pull himself out of bed in the mornings to go to his desk job. During the weekends, he slept most of the time. After a few acupuncture treatments, he started feeling "antsy" (his word) at many points throughout the day, and he couldn't get comfortable at night while trying to sleep. He had to move around a lot. We suggested that if his body felt like it should be moving, then he should let it move more. He went from no physical activity to walking one to two miles per day. Depression and fatigue improved significantly.
RJ came to see me for acupuncture while I was in school. We were both acupuncture students, and we were both recovering from recent break-ups. My teacher asked us if we thought acupuncture could FIX our emotions. We hoped so. "Wrong", she said. Emotions serve a purpose, and changing them requires an emotional process. What acupuncture can do, is help pivot a person toward the next stage of an emotional process. I didn't know it at the time, but she was talking about healing cues.
After that, RJ seemed to throw himself into his school work, and I noticed that he seemed much happier and more energized. Some time later, we talked about what happened. He had a realization in the weeks after his treatment - he had been dating the wrong kind of girls. The girls he had always been attracted to were unavailable for some reason - they were in a relationship, fresh out of one, or the situation was otherwise complicated. Pursuing them was a safe bet, not because they were likely to reciprocate, but because there was little risk of longterm attachment. RJ was afraid of real commitment.
Sometimes thoughts can be healing cues as they arise from the unconscious into the conscious mind to give us an assessment of our situation. RJ's unconscious made a connection for him between his romantic habits and their consequences. Do I think his fear of commitment went away after treatment? No, I don't. But I do think it helped that RJ was a little wiser as he went into new romantic situations. He's happily married now with a beautiful child.
Deborah came in to see us for back pain and sciatica due to a bulging disc in her spine. She could hardly survive the car trip across town to see us without significant pain. She came for acupuncture three times over the course of a week. Each time, her pain got a bit worse. After the third visit, she called me on the phone to ask what she should do.
This kind of story isn't common, but it's a useful example of how healing cues can actually be more important than immediate relief. Pain is a signal. If the body is trying to tell us that something is quite wrong, and it turns out that acupuncture cannot fix the main problem, should acupuncture reduce the signal? Some may say yes, but I think not. If we're being honest about what acupuncture does, then we should expect the signal to become clearer or even louder. Despite being unpleasant (to say the least), it's a valuable healing cue - this isn't working, do something else, quick! That's what I told Deborah. Given the strength and persistence of her pain, I thought more significant (and immediate action) might be what her body needed.
Deborah contacted her doctor and was scheduled for imaging the next day. An MRI showed that, in the years since she had last had imaging, her bulging disc had worsened causing severe compression of the spinal nerves that feed the low back and leg. No one can live with that, and acupuncture cannot fix it. Deborah went in for surgery the following week and is now mostly pain free.
I hope these stories help. If you have a personal story about healing cues that you'd like to share with us CLICK HERE
We promise we'll never use your story without your permission.
Pick up your cues,
PS: If you're looking for a little help restoring default settings: