Acupuncture for Anxiety: Should You Try It?

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When you’re stressed about everything from your workload to politics to why your jeans are suddenly so tight, you’d think having a bunch of needles stuck in your skin would be the last thing on your mind. would help you feel better. But acupuncture has anecdotal and scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness.


For thousands of years, this Chinese practice has helped relieve many physical and mental conditions, and modern medicine has warmed to the idea that anxiety might be one of them. Here’s what we know about using acupuncture to treat anxiety symptoms and what you can expect if you try it.




How does acupuncture for anxiety work?

If you opt for acupuncture treatment, you will provide a full medical history to your practitioner. Then, you will relax on a comfortable table, face up or down, while very fine needles – the width of a hair – are carefully inserted below the surface of your skin. When done right, they shouldn’t hurt.


But the needles don’t just go to random places in your anatomy. They need to be inserted in very specific places depending on your physical or mental symptoms. Anxiety points can include your breastbone, between your eyebrows, or the inside of your wrists.


The reason for these placements? According to Chinese medicine, energy, or “qi”, flows from top to bottom in the body. “Sometimes the energy is blocked, deficient, excessive or out of balance. This unbalances the body and, in turn, causes disease”, Elizabeth Trattner, a board-certified Chinese and integrative medicine physician who practices in Miami Beach, Florida, said Health. “Acupuncture restores homeostasis and promotes healing.”


As part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture uses a “whole system” approach to health. “We do not separate the physical and mental aspects [of a patient]because they are both intimately connected,” Trattner explained.


Here is an example. If you tell your acupuncturist that you feel anxious and wake up sweaty in the middle of the night, he won’t think you’re complaining about two totally different issues. You have just described the symptoms of one of the most common explanations of anxiety in Chinese medicine: “yin deficiency”.


If that seems too far off, there is a more western answer to how acupuncture works. “Acupuncture relieves anxiety by regulating the nervous system, including rebalancing the branches of the autonomic nervous system.” Ashley Flores, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago who sees many women for anxiety, particularly fertility and pregnancy-related anxiety, said Health.


When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system — the one that controls your “fight or flight” system — takes over, Flores explained, while your parasympathetic system (“rest and digest system”) is stifled. This explains why your heart is pounding in your chest and you may feel short of breath when anxiety kicks in.


“Acupuncture treatment helps return the body to a relaxed state where the sympathetic system is more balanced and no longer dominates,” Flores said.




What the science says

Several studies have shown acupuncture to be helpful for anxiety. For example, according to a January 2021 meta-analysis in the Annals of General Psychiatryrandomized controlled studies have indicated that acupuncture reduced anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder.


“[A]cupuncture needling has demonstrable physiological effects on and may alter neural functioning thought to be involved in…anxiety” Rosa N. Schnyer, a clinical assistant professor of nursing at the University of Texas at Austin who researches acupuncture in the treatment of depression, said Health.


And lest you think the placebo effect (“I believe it’ll work, so it’s okay!”) is responsible, Schnyer said brain scans show acupuncture normalizes signals reaching your limbic system. , which controls the “fight or flight” of your body. answer.


Additionally, Schnyer estimated that 9 out of 10 clients respond well to acupuncture. “Patients tell me all the time, ‘Wow!’” admitted Schnyer. “As a practitioner, I see people go from being nervous to finding their Zen. It’s like [acupuncture] completely resets the nervous system, and when that happens, a lot of other things start happening.”




Should you treat your anxiety with acupuncture?

According to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a division of the NIH), acupuncture is relatively safe, as long as you go to a licensed practitioner who uses sterile needles. (Single-use disposable needles are the industry standard.)


If you prefer to avoid taking medication for anxiety, acupuncture might be a good alternative. A February 2022 study by European Journal of Medical and Pharmacological Sciences comparative acupuncture and pharmacological treatment. Researchers found that participants who underwent somatic or auricular acupuncture before undergoing cholecystectomy or total extraperitoneal hernia (TEP) repair experienced less preoperative anxiety than those who used the benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety drug) midazolam.


Also, compared to the effects of some anti-anxiety medications, such as antidepressants, which can take weeks to fully kick in, the effects of acupuncture are sometimes felt immediately. “For some women, one treatment is enough,” Trattner said, “or a series of regular visits can get to the root cause of the anxiety and help manage it.”


Flores said she often detects a rapid change in her client’s breathing and pulse. “They may notice their muscles loosening up, a headache going away, or their eyes starting to water, all signs that the body is moving away from sympathetic dominance,” Flores explained.


If you feel overwhelmed with anxiety, acupuncture may be worth trying. (Especially if your health insurance covers it; some plans do.) “What we’re doing here is a reset, just like you reset a computer,” Schnyer said. “Your body knows how to do this. All you have to do is get out of the way.”



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