Anxiety: Risking Our Health and Happiness- 3 Part Series Part 1: How Can Acupuncture Help Decrease Anxiety?
Posted by Christina Pistotnik
Anxiety can play a huge role in our daily lives and the reality of treating anxiety is that different people require different treatments, even when suffering from the same type of anxiety. That’s because different people have different personalities, different needs, and of course, different symptoms. Acupuncture takes a holistic approach to treating people, because each treatment plan is specifically developed for each individual and their needs. Therefore, this is why it is an effective treatment option for anxiety sufferers to get personalized treatment that is tailor made for them.
I’m going to explain how acupuncture can help with anxiety in both Western medical and Traditional Chinese medical perspectives.
Western Medical Theory
The body’s stress response is triggered by two main pathways, one of which involves the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), in which these areas of the brain are activated to release peptides and proteins such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). They, in turn, launch the production of other hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine that rev up the anxiety meter. Once activated, the system causes the heart to beat faster and the senses to go on alert. It also diverts the body’s energy away from background operations such as digestion to prime and fuel the muscles into a state of readiness.
All of this is normal and necessary for protecting us, from potential threats-the fight or flight response. In today’s world threats are limited but stress is an everyday occurrence and this activates our fight or flight response in much the same way as a potential threat would. So when stress becomes chronic, beating us down hour after hour and day after day, it becomes harmful to or health rather than helpful. People under chronic stress don’t handle acute stress very well. In chronic stress, the cortisol levels are elevated and never come back down to baseline, so people end up with anxiety, insomnia or depression because of the constant ramping up of this system.
A study published in March 2013, in the Journal of Endocrinology, shed some light on the physiological mechanisms behind acupuncture’s beneficial effects on stress. The study examined the effect of acupuncture on rats subjected to the stressful experience of cold exposure for one hour daily for ten days. Rats treated with acupuncture prior to the ten-day study period had significantly lower stress hormones (ACTH and cortisol) at the end of the ten days compared to the rats not treated with acupuncture. The study concluded that acupuncture helped the study rats to cope better with stress.
Human bodies have the same type of response to the experience of stress that the rats in the study did, and most of us would say that we feel stressed for more than just one hour per day! Our adrenal glands increase their production of stress hormones when we feel stressed and this elevation can become chronic if the stress is repeated or continued. Disrupted stress hormones can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain, fatigue, infertility, frequent infections; digestive problems like IBS and acid reflux, and chronic pain, among many others.
Another study that demonstrates the benefit of acupuncture for treating anxiety disorders with evidence that acupuncture’s effect is comparable to that of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of counseling commonly used for patients with anxiety and depression. This study was conducted at the University of York in the UK and published in September 2011, in the online journal PLOS Medicine, found that acupuncture is as effective as counseling and more effective than antidepressant medication alone in the treatment of depression.
In this study, 755 patients were randomly assigned to receive acupuncture, counseling, or standard medical treatment (medication) for their depression symptoms. At the end of the 3-month study, the researchers found that one in three patients who received either acupuncture or counseling were no longer depressed, compared to one in five patients who received only standard medical care.
Traditional Chinese Medical Theory
As mentioned previously, acupuncture is a holistic treatment and it seeks to address body, mind, emotions and spirit. Herbology, diet, energy-cultivation exercises and life-style counseling often accompany it. The goal is to create harmony within the body and between the world and ourselves. It is understood that “intellect” and “feeling” reside in all the cells of the body. If a person is anxious or depressed, Chinese medicine understands this as the result of deficient or stagnant energy, or imbalance of the two polar opposite forces of which all things are comprised (Yin and Yang). This imbalance can take many forms, and is diagnosed by the acupuncturist through an ongoing evaluation process, which encompasses observation of tongue and pulse diagnosis, palpation and asking about symptoms and history.
Basically, what happens when a needle is placed a into a point is that it is facilitating the flow of life force (energy and blood). We bring energy into areas of deficiency and unblock the flow where there has been stagnation.
The experience of having acupuncture is pleasant, relaxing and energizing. The needles are hair thin, sterile and generally painless and never used twice. There may be a brief soreness or pulling sensation which means that your qi/energy has connected with the needle. You are made comfortable and draped appropriately. A good treatment feels like being in “the zone” or a deep meditation as your body moves back into balance.
Errington-Evans, N. (2011). Acupuncture for anxiety. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 18(4), 277-284. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2011.00254.x
Eshkevari, L., Permaul, E., & Mulroney, S.E. (2013). Acupuncture blocks cold stress-induced increases in the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis in the rat. Journal of Endocrinology, 217(1), 95-104. doi: 10.1530/JOE-12-040