How acupuncture helps anxiety

By Lucy Mei Lee

Anxiety is a normal reaction to a high-stress situation, but in some cases it becomes excessive, chronic and can cause people to dread everyday situations.  

In 2013, an estimated 3 million Canadians (11.6%) aged 18 years or older reported that they had a mood and/or anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and even fear.  Anxiety can be experienced in many different ways with many different triggers, often producing a sense of overwhelm and racing thoughts.  These symptoms can be accompanied by a pounding heart, chest tightness, sweating, muscle tension or other physical sensations.

In my acupuncture practice, I treat many who struggle with anxiety.  Addressing underlying anxiety can benefit other areas of health such as insomnia, chronic pain and digestive issues.  When a person is anxious, there is a tendency to worry or overthink, which in Chinese medical terms causes the qi (pronounced chee – meaning potential vital energy that animates the body) to scatter or knot.  The acupoints chosen aim at restoring open and smooth flow and calming the mind and heart spirit.

The Acupuncture Evidence Project, co-authored by Dr John McDonald, PhD and Dr Stephen Janz, provides an up-to-date comparative review of the clinical and scientific evidence for acupuncture.  Their study included a 2016 systematic review with over 400 randomized patients that concluded that “the effects from acupuncture for treating anxiety have been shown to be significant as compared to conventional treatments.”

In the most recent systematic review published in 2018, it revealed that all of 13 included studies “reported an anxiety decrease for their treatment group relative to the control groups.” Three of these studies used pharmaceuticals as controls.

The main way that acupuncture works for anxiety is through its effect on the nervous system.  There are two components of the nervous system, one which releases signals which are excitatory (sympathetic nervous system) often called the “fight or flight system” and another which releases relaxation signals (parasympathetic nervous system), often called the “rest and digest system”.  Acupuncture has been shown to have an effect on both these systems.  These signals direct the body for heart rate, blood pressure, and contraction force.

How acupuncture can help you

When receiving acupuncture treatment, and for a period of time following, a vast majority of clients report a sense of calm well-being and increased stillness of the mind. Racing or intrusive thoughts have a tendency to bring someone’s mind into the past or the future. Being able to stay present more often is helpful in reducing anxiety, and acupuncture can assist people to recognize how to do that.  Some people report feeling more grounded in their bodies and an increased self-awareness around boundaries or other needs. Many find that regular acupuncture treatments help to better adapt with to stress in their lives, whether it be at home, in the office, or simply within.

lifestyle recommendations that can help you:

  • Remove any barriers to getting good quality and quantity of sleep.

  • Drink adequate water – even mild dehydration can affect mood and ability to concentrate.

  • Eat a balanced diet - avoid blood sugar imbalances by eating regularly, avoid sugar and limit caffeine. Eat a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables.

  • Make time for self-care practices, such as meditation, breathing, yoga, Qigong, TaiChi, or other types of exercise.

  • Apply acupressure to Heart 7/Spirit Gate (see photo). This acupoint is located on the inner wrist crease, about one centimetre inwards from the pinky edge on the inside of the bony prominence. Apply firm pressure for the count of three then rub in circles for the count of three. Breathe and continue like this for 3 rounds then end with holding the point for 5-10 seconds.

Tall Tree Integrated Health Centre

Most importantly, recognize that you are not alone and talk to somebody whom you can trust, whether it is a friend, family member, counsellor or health practitioner.  There are many strategies out there that can make a big difference. I’d love to hear from you what methods you have found to be helpful.

And yes, in case you were wondering, acupuncture is worth pursuing even if you are anxious about needles.  Find someone that you communicate well with and can trust. It may surprise you just how little you feel the needles and how relaxing the experience can be.