If you’re looking at this article then you likely suffer from some sort of anxiety and we are here to tell you how acupuncture may be the answer you’ve always been looking for, but never knew existed. Anxiety is an extremely common mental/emotional concern experienced by 40 million people each year or nearly 20% of the population. The good news is that anxiety is a treatable condition that responds particularly well to naturopathic medicine and acupuncture.
Naturopathic medicine has fantastic success rates when treating anxiety because anxiety is often caused by a confluence of factors including diet, exercise, sleep, stress levels, coping strategies, and other lifestyle aspects that Naturopathic Doctors are given extra training in during medical school.
Combining diet, exercise, and other lifestyle modifications along with acupuncture are the key to resolving anxieties of all types.
What is Anxiety?
Sometimes when asked to describe what anxiety is, those that experience the feeling have difficulty describing it. Anxiety is feeling that “you know when you have it,” even if you can’t put it into more words. On some level, a person typically feels a mix of “not right,” overwhelmed, fearful, irritable, or feeling like they are in a dream along with experiencing physical sensations such as a rapid heart rate, stomach uneasiness, or muscle tension. Each person experiences anxiety a bit differently. So, let me break down what anxiety generally is as there are many types of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety and fear have a lot in common with regard to how it feels in the body. Fear is the emotion expressed when encountering a real or perceived danger/threat. On the other hand, anxiety is a response to anticipating a future danger or a threat. Think about it like this: fear is a normal response when encountering a tiger in the jungle as the feeling ensures that we act to ensure we survive by either fighting off the animal, running from the tiger, or freezing.
Anxiety may be a normal response if you heard a tiger roar in the distance while walking through the jungle, as there are a possibility and anticipation of encountering the tiger in the future. The anxiety you experience in this situation makes you more vigilant, cautious, and ready to encounter the danger if it were to manifest. If you did not hear any tiger sounds in the distance, yet still continually worried about encountering one or other potential dangers, the anxiety you felt would not be a helpful response. As you can see, fear and anxiety are appropriate and even helpful in some situations, but in other situations, they do not serve us well and can cause distress. Although these examples include tigers – I’m sure you can think of how these patterns apply to your life, your work life, your social relationships etc.
Understand that anxiety can be a normal feeling, but it can also become a disorder in which anxiety is excessive to the perceived cause and persistent over time. Those with anxiety disorders often develop these conditions in childhood and those that are not treated in childhood tend to experience the disorder into adulthood.
How Anxiety Presents in the Body
Our emotions and thoughts do not just affect our minds. They can have a profound impact on our physical bodies as well. Think of a time when you heard terrifying news. What happened? Did you jump? Shake? Did the pit of your stomach drop? Did you feel a lump in your throat? Did your mouth become dry? Did you become nauseated? I am sure you can relate to some of these physical symptoms. This is because our emotions have a direct impact on our physical bodies ( and our physical health has a profound impact on our emotional and mental well-being, too.)
Anxiety can lead to physical symptoms which are both short-lived and chronic. These include:
- digestive concerns
- insomnia & dream-disturbed sleep
- weakness or fatigue
- rapid breathing
- shortness of breath
- increased heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- muscle tension & body pain
- And more!
In some cases, people have not identified that they experience anxiety. They may only experience some of the above physical symptoms and have not correlated their physical ailments to their emotions. In these cases, it is common to seek out medical care and look for a physical cause of their physical pain/ailment – which will only get them so far until the emotional aspects are addressed.
Conventional Medicine Methods for Anxiety
Western medicine tends to treat anxiety as a symptom that needs to be suppressed without a deep dive into what exactly is causing the anxiety. Most psychiatrists, the conventional medicine doctors most trained to treat anxiety turn to medication to reduce the feelings of anxiety and seldom if ever talk to the person about coping mechanisms and less invasive ways to manage stress.
The most common medications used to manage anxiety in patients are benzodiazepines, addictive medications that work in the brain by activating the Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) receptor. When the GABA receptors are stimulated with benzodiazepines or other substances people experience relaxation and a sense of calm. While benzodiazepines are effective in producing relaxation they do not address the underlying causes of anxiety and many individuals prescribed these medications end up taking them years.
Like with most medications benzodiazepines can cause many adverse side effects such as:
- Slurred speech
- Muscle weakness
- Memory problems
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
Many more side effects are possible with benzodiazepines, the ones listed above are just some of the most common.
There are other medication options such as antidepressants and Buspar. Although they are not addictive, both of these medications also have a wide array of side effects and, most importantly, they do not address the underlying reason for a person’s anxiety. When the underlying cause is not addressed, medications may only have limited success or even if they do help, a person becomes dependent on their anxiety medications and as soon as they stop them, the anxiety comes right back.
Acupuncture for Anxiety
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well as in Naturopathic Medicine, we do not treat the symptom – we treat the person. This involves a comprehensive intake which assesses all of your physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Next, a TCM diagnosis is established. The exact acupuncture treatment will depend on how you are experiencing your anxiety, i.e, racing heart, dizziness, shortness of breath, vivid dreams etc.
Treating the whole person, and looking at where symptoms are originating from is the foundation of Naturopathic Medicine and Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture.
Common TCM patterns in anxiety:
- Heart and Kidney Yin Deficiency
- Heart and Spleen Qi Deficiency
Anxiety in TCM is commonly related to three organ systems, the kidneys, the spleen, and the heart. The kidneys are commonly associated with the emotion of fear and the spleen with the emotion of worry. The heart is considered the seat of the mind in Chinese medicine cannot be forgotten when talking about anxiety or other mental health concerns. Yin is the nourishing, calming force in our bodies – as opposed to yang which is energizing and heating in nature. The balance of yin and yang is also important to take into consideration when looking at anxiety patterns.
Heart and Kidney Yin Deficiency
In Chinese medicine, the kidney yin controls the heat of the heart, which you can think of based on their associated elements, the water for the kidneys, and fire for the heart. If kidney yin cannot control the heat of the heart the mind will become restless causing conditions such as anxiety.
Symptoms of heart and kidney yin deficiency:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Digestive issues
- Fear of dying
- Poor memory
- The tendency to be startled
- Back pain
Kidney yin deficiency is a common occurrence as people age. It is the same pattern that we see in menopause. Long-term stress or illness can also lead to kidney yin deficiency.
Heart and Spleen Qi Deficiency
The spleen is the primary mover of the qi in the body and a deficiency in spleen qi can lead to a deficiency in the formation of blood by the heart (in Chinese Medical Theory, not actual* blood).
Symptoms of heart and spleen qi deficiency:
- Insomnia or dream disturbed sleep
- Bloating & Loose stools
- Low or no appetite
- Poor circulation
- Lack of joy
- Scanty periods
Anxiety is a condition that is caused by and made worse by a variety of factors. Acupuncture is an extremely effective adjunct treatment for anxiety. Anxiety can be caused by more than the TCM patterns listed above and dysfunction in one organ system can cause dysfunction in another. Working with a practitioner trained in TCM diagnoses will ensure that the correct TCM pattern is identified and treated that is causing your anxiety.
What to Expect from Acupuncture
Acupuncture therapy is a very relaxing experience. The session is about 45 minutes long and involves a thorough intake of all your symptoms and a physical exam. In Chinese medicine, your physical appearance is essential in determining what is going on deeper within the body. The body never lies. Your Naturopathic Doctor will look at your tongue, skin, face, nails, as well as feel your pulses to gain insight into the root cause of your symptoms.
Once the doctor has assessed your condition, he or she will create an individualized acupuncture protocol, which may also include moxa, cupping, gua sha, as well as acupressure massage. At our clinic, we most often combine acupuncture with herbal treatments along with dietary and lifestyle changes.
How Many Acupuncture Sessions Do I Need?
Most people experience relief after their first few sessions. In most cases, people require 8-12 sessions in total spaced 4-7 days apart. It is important to schedule your sessions close together and regularly to ensure you get the most benefit from your acupuncture session. Your doctor will be able to help you determine what type of treatment regime is best for you.
Acupuncture for anxiety is a safe and effective therapy with no downtime or side effects. People love the way they feel after acupuncture and using therapies that work with their bodies and treat the underlying cause.