Something I see often in my clinic is “side effects”* of acupuncture treatments. Someone may come in for chronic back pain and their menstrual cramps disappear or they are here for headaches and they are suddenly getting deeper sleep than they have had for years. One that is a little more subtle but one of my favorite side effects (well, they are all my favorite, can I say that?) is an increased sense of mindfulness in between treatments. I often have people tell me they are a little less in their heads, there is less ruminating, throughout the day and more present in the moment. Sometimes this comes in the form of just being more aware of their bodies, how their bodies feel in response to stimulus like food, movement or stress. This, by the way, is what I feel is one of the keys for living a healthy life -getting to know your own body, learning about yourself and how you react to your environment. When you get to know yourself you break out of the trance of only following routine and you begin to understand why you make the choices you do, and can become more proactive in designing the life that you actually want. When we know ourselves and our bodies we get a better understanding of what our bodies want and can better take care of it. Also important, when you get to know your body you know early on when something is out of balance and can address it when it is still easy to address (i.e. early on).
Spending more time in the present moment is also calming. There is a profound de-stressing and clarity that can be found when you take a break from ruminating about the past and from worrying about the future. I believe that all of these states of mind are important - looking at the past, present or future - but it is a matter of balance. Spending too much time in the past or future, over long periods of time, can cause distress and in subtle ways effect how you interact with yourself and the world around you.
There are so many ways to switch your state of mind and bring yourself into the present. Things like exercise, having a conversation with some one about a shared interest, listening to music you love, helping someone with something, any kind of play, mindfulness and meditation, just to name a few. (As a side note, if you have your own favorite ways to switch your state of mind into a positive direction, I would love to hear about them!).
Now, let’s talk about one of those things from that list, meditation. One of the coolest things about it is how it is so easily accessible. It’s free and is pretty much always available and the benefits become woven into your life more and more, the more you practice it. Meditation is kind of like exercise for your brain. Just like you are not only healthy during that 30 minutes working out inside the gym, it is not only when you are actively meditating that your brain is in a healthy state. The effects are there throughout your days. You meditate to be able to experience the benefits of meditation in between sittings.
I know lots of people who find it difficult to begin a meditation practice (like a lot of habits). Sometimes it’s just hard to start something, it’s easy to procrastinate. And sometimes even after you start, it is still difficult. Some people are not used to sitting still, they get antsy or bored or uncomfortable in some other way.
This is where acupuncture can be so helpful. For one, you schedule it in, you have the time and space carved out to do this ahead of time because it is on your calendar and that is key for some. But more directly, acupuncture puts you in a parasympathetic state which opens the pathway to a more meditative state. You don’t have to do anything except lay on the treatment table. And with every treatment you get (they are usually weekly at first) the more your nervous system gets used going into that state, your mind is exercising that pathway and this is why so many of my patients start noticing this state of mindfulness throughout the week. Our mind and body more easily transitions into a state of awareness once we start exercising that pathway. After a while (possibly two or three treatments) this might be all you need to achieve that balance between rumination and mindfulness. Or at this time you might be ready to try a sitting meditation of just 5 minutes a day (you could try one of these http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations ) and see how it goes. And 5 minutes a day is significant. For those that do not want to sit I would recommend Thich Nhat Hanh writings https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95747.The_Miracle_of_Mindfulness He writes about a way to meditate while you are going about your day, with no need to stop and take a break from what you are doing. There are many different entry ways into a mindfulness practice, just pick one, and see how you like it.
* I use the term “side effects” a bit tongue in cheek since the side effects are actually to be expected and are a result of bringing your whole system into a healthy balance, but sometimes patients are surprised at these benefits since it is not what they originally came in to see me for.