This is a question that acupuncturists are asked from time to time. There is evidence that shows that a positive attitude accelerates healing. This makes sense if we look at it from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. A positive attitude, when it is applied in an authentic and open-hearted way, allows our energy to flow freely. When we are consumed with fear and doubt, our energy gets stuck. Stuck energy slows down recovery. Flowing energy speeds up recovery.
Most people come to acupuncture because they are in pain. Pain is uncomfortable–it often interrupts our sleep, increases tension in our body, and puts us in a bad mood. When we feel pain, we naturally have aversion to it. Feeling anger, fear or worry about our pain is understandable, but it slows down healing. When we are frustrated or worried, our energy gets stagnant. We feel restless and irritable when our energy stagnates, which perpetuates the cycle of stagnation. One of the main purposes of acupuncture is to establish correct energy flow in our bodies. When the energy moves the way it should, our pain reduces, our mood improves, we sleep well and digest well.
Another way of looking at this question is through the perspective of the stress response. When we experience mental or physical stress (whether that’s through worry, pain, or trauma) our adrenal glands secrete cortisol. Cortisol is from the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system, which is when our bodies are devoting their energy outward. This is helpful if you are, say, running from a bear, but not so helpful if you are stressing out about doing your taxes. Acupuncture, no matter why you receive treatment, shifts your nervous system out of “fight or flight” and into “rest and digest” mode. The “rest and digest” part of our nervous system is where the body takes care of itself through a variety of mechanisms, one of which is lowering cortisol; it’s where healing happens.
When we receive acupuncture and our energy is flowing correctly, it is not necessary to believe in it for the treatment to work. For many people, the word “believe” has religious overtones. Chinese Medicine does not have any religious affiliation. Before I became an acupuncturist, I shadowed a veterinarian who performed acupuncture on dogs and horses. To my knowledge, animals do not have any belief systems, yet they receive the same kinds of benefits from acupuncture that humans do: less pain and inflammation, better digestion and better sleep.
That being said, I’ve noticed that patients who come to acupuncture with an open mind and heart get better faster. Those who are skeptical and worried still get better, but it takes longer. I think part of it has to do with proper energy flow and the lowering of cortisol, but it also has to do with our level of engagement with our own healing. Patients with positive attitudes are much more likely to have better self care: drinking adequate water, eating nourishing foods, stretching, exercising to the extent that they can given their condition, and using their support network of family and friends to help them. Patients who are not sure that they can be helped are less likely to work hard to help themselves.
As acupuncturists, we meet patients where they are. We strive to provide a positive environment for healing to happen.