Safety in Numbers

Published in on Dec 16, 2020

In its narrowest sense, acupuncture safety sounds something like: “Whoa, be careful with the sharp end of that thing!” Mostly, this post isn’t about that part, though. This isn’t about physical safety; it’s about social safety.

First, a note about language: When I say “safety,” I actually really just want to talk about being “safer.” I don’t believe that safety exists as some complete and perfected state. I think of it as a lot of tweaking. Like an ongoing process of adjustments to some of our primary environments: the physical, mental, social, and spiritual. The goal of all of that adjusting is to support our ability to actively express our humanity, rather than reactively respond to our environment. To some degree, creating safer conditions allows us to put our attention where we want it to go, rather than having it grabbed by the need to deal with a real or perceived threat. Enough safety in one or more of our four environments is what allows us to be creative, have fun, and be nurturing - the good stuff in life.

The era of Covid has presented us with a serious challenge to our sense of safety - one that is an especially painful tangle of physical and social safety issues. Many people have leaned heavily on their mental and spiritual practices and beliefs to support them in getting through this. For some, that has been enough. For others, like me, I’m wondering: How will we feel safe again after this? Like, deep-down-in-our-autonomic-nervous-systems safe? Someday, it will finally be okay to do normal social things in a normal way. When we get there, we will all, to a greater or lesser degree, need to address the trauma of this persistent feeling of being unsafe. Trauma as in the capital T in PTSD.

In normal times, I’m a person who feels a genuine safety in numbers. Not in massive crowds, (which can make me nervous) but in medium-sized social groups: intimate-yet public settings, like a coffee-house concert or a birthday party. You know, super-spreader-sized gatherings.

But something has happened in this year of Covid. I avoid people consciously: I cross the street if I see a neighbor while I’m walking my dog. I fear closeness subconsciously: I find myself anxious watching TV and seeing people standing too close to each other. It’s even invaded my unconscious mind: I have panic dreams where I am in an enclosed space with strangers and I can’t find my mask.

I’m wondering, this year, if my brain is getting “re-wired” somehow, so that what I experience somewhere in those deepest reaches of my primordial brain is the reverse? Is “danger in numbers” going to become a permanent part of how I subconsciously and unconsciously experience my fellow humans, even long after my conscious mind has decided it’s safe? What changes are getting installed into our collective psyche? And will it be more or less so for the kids, with their famously plastic little brains?

The phrase “social distancing” has stuck around as our way of saying “stay six feet apart.” This, despite an insightful and compassionate effort to get us to refer to it as “physical distancing.” Some wise and kind person, noticing that we need to know that we can still be social, thought a language change might help. But it didn’t take off. Maybe that’s because the isolation-inducing physical-safety pandemic precautions really do, actually, take a major toll on our social selves, leaving swaths of anxiety and depression in their wake.

I have hands-on experience with the effects of isolation in making people sick, and making sick people sicker. And also with the phenomenal power of community in reversing those effects. I practice community acupuncture. I use little needles to help people with physical and emotional pain or numbness, along with other dysregulations in important body systems: think digestion, sleep, hormonal symptoms, that sort of thing.

As a community acupuncturist, my practice is set up to be affordable. For me and many of my colleagues, this means having a big room full of cozy chairs where people sit side-by-side. Pre-covid, the chairs were often less than six feet apart. This is by design, so we can fit more chairs into a space, treat more people, and keep the price low while still being able to pay for our clinic space. So, not just cozy chairs as in La-Z-Boys with pillows and blankies, but a real-estate-speak “cozy” clinic is pretty critical to making the finances all work out.

So, cozy-close has been the norm in my clinic, even though there is not much “normal” about it. There are few situations where we are tucked that close to strangers for any length of time. Airplanes, stadiums, and theaters come to mind (along with a surge of longing and an almost instantaneous “Yeah-But-We’re-Not-Doing-That-Right-Now” resounding from my frontal lobe.) The thing those other settings don’t have in common with a community acupuncture treatment room is a certain depth of togetherness - a sense that we are not only doing something at the same time and in the same place, but that we are engaged with one another. We’re not packed in like people in an elevator, with our outward-facing, eye-contact-less silence, just waiting for the doors to open so we can re-establish our personal space. And it’s not like a performance where everyone is facing the stage or the field, focused on some third thing besides themselves or the other people in the audience. The chairs in a community room are often arranged in little pods of 3-5 facing each other, or they are arranged around the edge of the room in one big circle. So there’s this sense that, even though we may not know anyone else in the room, we are somehow doing something collaborative.

So how does that even work? I make an appointment, then I arrive for My Acupuncture, right? Sort of. Once people are settled into a chair, they get needled on their arms and legs and sometimes their head, without the need to remove any clothing. A lot of times, folks will fall asleep while they are being treated. A room full of napping patients is one of my favorite places to be in the whole world. For me, the place feels completely full - of calm and rest and care and connection. It’s a warm, buzzy feeling. It feels safe.

This kind of safety is not something that we just encounter. It is something that we actively cultivate for one another.

My acupuncturist friends who practice this way often talk about the shared community aspect as some sort of “special sauce” that makes the acupuncture more effective. I agree. Acupuncture is old and has an astonishing number of ways that it can be practiced “right.” Each style of practice makes sense based on its own set of basic ideas (think yin/yang, qi). But exactly how acupuncture works on the body still doesn’t fit any one explanation in terms of Western science. The physics, biology and chemistry we find so reliable for fixing vitamin deficiencies, repairing hernias, keeping preemies alive in the NICU, and the million other medical miracles our Western physicians can do for us - those sciences don’t have one simple way to explain all of what happens when we place tiny needles in certain spots and then leave the patient to rest.

All of that to say, the acupuncture itself does its thing. It does it reliably and with an astonishing tolerance for variety (and, some studies would suggest, randomness) in the location of the needles. So, acupuncture does its thing; community adds the special sauce that does another thing entirely.

One thing community acupuncture can do is to create relaxation. Like I said, people get so calm they often fall asleep. We talk about “rest and digest and heal” as the things that our bodies do when our nervous system is in its parasympathetic state. The activated, sympathetic state, is the “fight, flight, freeze” mode where our heart rate and breathing speed up, our pupils get big so we can see, and our blood flows out away from our internal organs, flooding our large muscles in case we need to run. We are ready to react. Our attention has been focused onto a threat. On the other hand, when we place acupuncture needles, all of those signs of sympathetic nervous activation go down within a matter of minutes. And those signs can be measured with our scientific instruments.

That kind of sympathetic nervous activation that our body does for us is meant to be temporary - a kick-start in response to an active threat. In our modern lives, though, we spend a lot of time in that state. It can be hard to get ourselves out of it. People use all kinds of techniques to settle themselves into a calmer, parasympathetic state - things you might think of like yoga or mediation, but also cardio exercise, various drugs, sex, and comfort foods that create a bump in happy neurochemicals. Acupuncture is a super-reliable method to get into rest, digest, and heal mode.

But acupuncture won’t kick in a parasympathetic state if there’s actual danger. I was recently huddled in my basement as a storm with 150MPH winds toppled trees and ripped off roofs all over my neighborhood. No amount of needles anywhere on my body or scalp was going to calm me down during that very loud 45 minutes of my life.

During that storm, I had a lot of signs that there was real danger: I could see the sky turning really, really dark at 1:00 in the afternoon. The wind was kicking up, and I could see the trees bending further and further towards the ground. My own senses were giving me a clue. But also, I could hear the tornado siren going. I knew what it was because they test it at 9AM on the first Wednesday of every month, preceded by a nice calming message “this is not an emergency; this is only a test.” It was not 9:00, not the first Wednesday, and there was no reassuring message. Also, my phone weather app was blowing up with messages like “You are in a life-threatening emergency. Take cover.” And my wife, who grew up around here, was closing windows and agreeing that we should go downstairs. I had people. People around me, sounding alarms and letting me know that, yes, this is serious.

That’s part of what I think may be going on in our community acupuncture rooms. The people around me, as I enter the room, are calm. Their behavior is telling me “This is not an emergency. This is safe.” So I can relax, too. I can trust the group and I can enter a lovely parasympathetic state where my mind turns down its volume on the constant danger messages it transmits, and my immune system and cellular repair crew come out to do their thing. Blood can flow to my internal organs and support my digestion. I am with a community, and I can let my guard down. I can maintain only a fraction of my prior vigilance, because there are others to take up that work, including the acupuncturist, who works with an alert yet calm manner.

After the storm was over, we joined all of our neighbors out in the street, checking in on one another, remarking at the downed trees and how the leaves had turned into green confetti, plastered onto every surface, lending to the momentary party-like atmosphere of our mutual survival. We agreed, together, that it was safe now.

In this way, other people = safety. We can influence one another as long as we remain open to others’ perspectives. We can adjust our ideas of when we are less safe and when we are safer, if we have semi-permeable boundaries. Right now, we are keeping firm and closed physical boundaries with other people, and our social boundaries are, to some degree, similarly hardened. This is a piece of our human experience that I look forward to restoring, through my practice, when we have the virus under control. I am ready for a time when my reflexive response to seeing another human being isn’t an internal calculus of 6 feet and fifteen minutes. When I cross the street to talk with a neighbor eye-to-eye and let them pet my dog. When concerts and celebrations and worship and protests can be done shoulder-to-shoulder again, and where that feels more safe and less dangerous than isolation. When we can collectively say “it’s safe now,” and more easily express the creative, fun, and nurturing aspects of our humanity. We’ve been staying apart to avoid illness. I can’t wait to come together to heal.