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Acupuncture effective in treating stress and anxiety

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Anxiety disorders constitute the most common type of mental illness worldwide. It encompass several different conditions including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and social anxiety disorder, among others. Each syndrome has a specific set of defining criteria, but they often share the following signs and symptoms:

  • Restlessness, nervousness

  • A sense of impending danger, panic or doom

  • Increased heart rate

  • Rapid breathing

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Fatigue or weakness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Excessive worry

  • Avoidance of things that trigger anxiety

Non-clinical anxiety

Anxiety is a normal and natural reaction to different types of events or circumstances we might encounter. For instance, when we are faced with a threat, feelings of anxiety are part of our body’s fight or flight response which is a protective mechanism. Even sometimes “good” events, such as a wedding or the birth of a child, can cause anxiety or stress.

If anxiety is proportional to the degree of the problem, ends once the situation has resolved, and is a response to a realistic, not just imagined, situation, it is not a problem that necessarily needs to be treated. However, seeking help for any type of anxiety can help improve quality of life and the ability to manage the stress more effectively.

Importantly, when anxiety or stress occurs in the absence of an identifiable event or in response to an imagined problem, seems disproportional to the actual situation, does not go away once the situation has resolved, or affects one’s ability to work or perform daily functions, seeking help is important.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health

Recent data indicates that mental illness in general, and stress and anxiety in particular, have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fears about contracting the illness, uncertainty about the future, increased isolation, job loss, and financial distress have all contributed to increased anxiety and other mental health problems. Moreover, frontline medical workers are experiencing burnout and increased levels of depression, anxiety and insomnia. These responses are understandable given the severity of the pandemic and the drastic changes to daily life that many people have experienced. Because we will likely be dealing with the pandemic in a certain period of time, it is more important than ever to try to find ways to deal with stress and anxiety and improve overall mental health.

Acupuncture for Anxiety and Stress

Traditional Chinese Medicine is individualized medicine that treats each patient according to his or her unique needs. Treatments are tailored to each patient’s specific signs and symptoms, medical history, constitutional tendencies, and other relevant lifestyle factors. Thus, two patients who have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder from a Western medicine perspective might receive different diagnoses from a Chinese medicine perspective and thus receive different treatments and advice. An in-depth discussion of anxiety in Chinese medicine is beyond the scope of this article, but I am happy to discuss it more with anyone who is interested. What is important is that you will receive a treatment tailored to your distinct condition and needs and not a protocol-based treatment used for everyone with anxiety.

Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment for anxiety and stress disorders. One study comparing acupuncture, conventional treatment, and a treatment that integrated acupuncture and talk therapy found that “both the integrative treatment and therapeutic acupuncture significantly, both statistically and clinically, reduced anxiety and depression compared to usual primary care in patients with psychological distress. Moreover, about half of the patients in the integrative and acupuncture groups with initial depression or anxiety achieved significant improvements after treatment.” Another study focused specifically on patients with “chronic, non-responding anxiety symptoms.” The findings suggest that “acupuncture, using a standardized approach, is an effective tool in the management of patients who present with anxiety symptoms that have proven resistant to a number of other routine interventions.”

Additionally, acupuncture can stimulate the release of endorphins, which play a role in the body’s stress response. Finally, acupuncture has been shown to affect the nervous system and balance sympathetic and parasympathetic activities to help lessen the body’s fight or flight stress response.

Overall, as research-based evidence reveals, acupuncture is a safe and effective means of treating anxiety and stress.

In addition to acupuncture and psychotherapy, several lifestyle changes can help with anxiety. Consider trying one of the following:

  • Prioritizing sleep

  • Physical activity

  • Spending time in nature

  • Meditation (I will be posting a blog on meditation soon)

  • Breath work

  • Journaling, including a gratitude journal

  • Talking to trusted friends or relatives

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