How does acupuncture work for stress and anxiety?

Stress is a common complaint which can lead to a variety of associated symptoms including anxiety. People tend to view stress as an accepted part of modern daily life but the fact that it can exacerbate so many other conditions means it really shouldn’t be ignored. These conditions include back pain, depression, headaches and migraines, insomnia, menopausal or premenstrual symptoms (PMS) and irritable bowels syndrome (IBS). Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All of these disorders lead to a combination of emotional and physical symptoms.

It’s easy for our bodies and minds to become overstimulated by the challenges of daily life which can lead to over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Acupuncture activates the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts those feelings and triggers the relaxation response instead. It lifts you out of “fight or flight” mode.

Gradually mental health issues such as stress and anxiety are being more widely talked about and recognized by the public and employers. These can be treated with psychological therapies or medication which may have unwelcome side effects. However, waiting lists for talking therapies on the NHS can be very long so patients often have to seek treatment privately. You need to choose the right therapy for you and acupuncture may form part of this therapeutic and self-care package.

In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being.

Acupuncture has been shown to help anxiety and stress by:

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry.
  • Regulating neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine, which affects mood and sleep amongst other things.
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response.
  • Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with anxiety and stress reactions.
  • Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry.

Are you one of the 66% of adults who suffer with anxiety and just “try to get on with it” instead of seeking help?

Obtaining quality research into the effectiveness of acupuncture for different conditions is  long process. Anxiety UK and the British Acupuncture Council have been running a study for several years to obtain data to establish the benefits of acupuncture for these conditions. Initial data is very encouraging but there is not yet enough to publish.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) aims to restore balance within the body and in scientific terms this means restoring our bodies natural ability to regulate itself (homeostasis). TCM is a holistic treatment so we can target the emotional issues and thoughts (worry, disturbed sleep, irritability and poor concentration) at the same time as the physical symptoms (palpitations, poor sleep, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscle tension and aches.)

When I am treating anxiety I approach it using the traditional theory of the Five Elements – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Individuals have very different emotional responses to different situations and these vary according to which of the Five elements reflects your biggest strengths and vulnerabilities. Treating at this level aims to balance out your response and calm the mind and we can focus treatment on the element that will offer the biggest support.

Acupuncture is very safe, when carried out by a qualified practitioner, and any side effects are mild and short lived. Acupuncture can be safely used alongside conventional treatments such as medication or talking therapies, with the aim of enhancing their beneficial effects or reducing unwanted side-effects.

Acupuncture has a cumulative effect so you will need a course of treatment to bring the frequency and severity of your symptoms under control. We’ll start with weekly treatments then gradually space them out to see how long you can go between treatments and still feel well. Eventually you may want to come for maintenance treatments to keep you feeling great.

Most people find acupuncture very relaxing and will even feel sleepy whilst the needles are left in place to do their work. Often those with anxiety may be more wary of the idea of treatment with needles. You would be surprised how many people tell me they are severely needle phobic but then find the experience relaxing, calming and they may even forget the needles are there!

For more detailed information (including all references) please read the British Acupuncture Council factsheets and these other links:

BAcC Stress factsheet

BAcC Anxiety factsheet

Anxiety UK

Got more questions about how acupuncture could help you? Book in for a free 20 minute consultation now to discuss your particular health concerns. Sarah would love to chat to you.

Phone                   07714 721969 (calls or texts welcome)