Acupuncture for Anxiety
In the last several years issues surrounding mental health and well-being have become a more significant focus for healthcare practitioners. People are learning more about the importance of maintaining good mental health and about ways they can identify and deal with problems when they arise. Almost everyone has experienced anxiety in their lifetime. While severity can vary a lot from person to person, from short bouts of anxiety in particular situations to intense periods of it that are life-disrupting, anxiety can be managed with proper treatment.
A Statistics Canada survey (2013) found that 11.6% of Canadians over the age of 17 had a mood or anxiety disorder, although nearly one quarter of them had not consulted a health professional about it (1). Anxiety is generally characterized by persistent feelings of nervousness, worry, and even fear. It can interfere with an individual’s everyday life for an extended period of time (2).
Anxiety can manifest in three ways: thoughts (often worrying), behaviours (avoiding situations), and physical symptoms (3). The physical symptoms are a result of triggering the body’s sympathetic nervous system or it’s “fight or flight” response. This causes symptoms like rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, nausea, chest tightness, lightheadedness, or heavy legs.
What are the most common causes of anxiety?
Currently, Western medicine does not fully understand what causes anxiety. In some people it is triggered by a traumatic event, while in others it may be linked to another underlying health issue or occur as a side effect of certain medications (4). There are factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing anxiety, including trauma, stress, existing mental health disorders, family history, certain personalities, and drug/alcohol abuse.
Standard Western medical treatments
From a Western perspective, best practice for anxiety treatment includes a combination of psychological counselling and medications. Psychological counselling involves working with a therapist to reduce anxiety symptoms by learning techniques and strategies for becoming more comfortable and confident in anxiety triggering situations. This type of therapy, commonly known as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), is the most effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety conditions (5).
The three main types of medications prescribed for anxiety are anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and in some cases sedatives (usually for short term relief). Talking with a doctor about the benefits and risks of each is key to finding the one that will work the best for you.
How can Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture treat anxiety?
Traditional chinese medicine sees any kind of mood or emotional disorder like anxiety as an indication of imbalance in the body. When a person experiences anxiety, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) describes that the “Shen” (or spirit) of a person has been disrupted. This is often linked to visible symptoms (i.e. heart palpitations, sweating, insomnia) and can be treated in much the same ways as other health problems. The “imbalance” that TCM sees in anxiety disorders is similar to what Western medicine calls a hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system, as mentioned above. Therefore the goal of a TCM treatment is to regulate the sympathetic nervous system in order to decrease the symptoms of anxiety and decrease their reoccurance in the future.
How can Acupuncture help treat anxiety?
Acupuncture, supported by TCM theory, can treat anxiety by regulating the functions of the brain, specifically the autonomic nervous system (which includes both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems).
A 2013 study found that acupuncture “not only activates distinct brain regions in different kinds of diseases caused by imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic activities, but also modulates adaptive neurotransmitter in related brain regions to alleviate autonomic response”(6). This means that acupuncture treatments can help balance unusual neurotransmitter activity that may be causing anxiety symptoms. One way it does this is by balancing prefrontal cortex activity (toward left-dominant), resulting in relaxation (7).
An acupuncture treatment for anxiety will use distal points on the hands and feet, as well as points on the scalp and even the ear. Scalp points are often used in disorders related to the brain and can be highly effective in calming the mind, regulating the emotions, and even stimulating neuronal activity in conditions related to paralysis (click for information on how TCM and acupuncture can treat Bell’s Palsy and help in stroke recovery). Acupuncture also uses specific ear point protocols to significantly decrease anxiety (8).
If you or a loved one are having difficulties with anxiety or other mood disorders, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out if/how Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can benefit you, and help you live your best life.
2. Government of Canada. Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada. Ottawa (Ontario); Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada; 2006. 188 p. Cat. No. HP5-19/2006E.