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Acupuncture and Anxiety, a good match?

anxiety-blog-3-edited-672x340In Western medicine, generalized Anxiety disorder (GAD) is a psychological and physiological state characterized by excessive, exaggerated Anxiety and worry about everyday life events with no obvious reasons for worry. People with symptoms of GAD tend to always expect disaster and continuously worry about things such as health, money, family, work, or school. With worry out of proportion or unrealistic, daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, the Anxiety dominates the person’s thinking and can interfere with daily functioning.

Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Muscle tension, trembling
  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Fast heartbeat, tachycardia
  • Fast or troubled breathing
  • Stomach upset
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep


It has been estimated that anxiety disorders affect between 5 and 7% of the general population, and that up to 29% of people will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least once during their lifetime. Anxiety disorders affect both men and women across the world, but the burden of the disease is greater in women than in men.

At one time or another, all of us experience stress. These feelings are a healthy response to events in our lives that may feel beyond our control. When we are healthy and the stress is short-lived, we are usually able to recover without too much wear and tear to our overall health. However, when the stress is extreme, or if it lasts a long time, our emotional health and ultimately, our physical health begin to suffer.

Acupuncture and anxiety

Recently, I have been getting a lot of enquiries asking me if acupuncture can treat Anxiety disorders. The answer is always yes. I have treated many patients suffering with Anxiety of varying degrees; acupuncture is a powerful treatment for depression and Anxiety.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views Anxiety not simply as a brain dysfunction, but more as an inner organs dysfunction.

In traditional Chinese medicine there exist zang and fu organs. These are not simply anatomical substances, but more importantly represent the generalization of the physiology and pathology of certain systems of the human body.

There are five zang and six fu organs. The five zang organs are the heart (including the pericardium), lung, spleen, liver, and kidney. The six fu organs are the gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and the sanjiao (three areas of the body cavity). Zang and fu are classified by the different features of their functions. The five zang organs mainly manufacture and store essence: qi, blood, and body fluid.

In TCM theory, each of the Zang Organs plays a role in the emotions. Emotions and organ’s health are intimately connected. Zang organs can develop imbalances and dysfunctions due to dietary, environmental, lifestyle, and hereditary factors.

Worry, dwelling, or focusing too much on a particular topic, excessive mental work are symptoms of a Spleen disorder. Lack of enthusiasm and Vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, despair are symptoms of a Heart disorder. Liver emotional symptoms are anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, and “flying off the handle.” With Lung disorders, we see more grief, sadness, and detachment. And finally, with an imbalance of the Kidneys, a person may be fearful, insecure, aloof, isolated, and have weak willpower. While the Heart Zang is said to store the Shen or spirit, in all Anxiety cases, the Shen is disturbed. While a generalized Anxiety disorder always affects the Shen, either primarily or secondarily, calming and harmonizing the Shen will be the fundamental treatment. In Anxiety, the most common injured organs are the Spleen and Heart. When there is a disturbance in one or more of these Zang organs from any cause, an imbalanced emotional state can happen.

Acupuncture seeks to address body, mind, emotions and spirit. The goal is to create harmony within ourselves and between ourselves and the world. This imbalance can take many forms, and is ultimately discerned by the acupuncturist through an ongoing evaluation process which encompasses observation of posture, gait, demeanor, skin tone, brightness of eyes, voice, smell, tongue and pulse diagnosis, palpation and asking about symptoms and history.

Our TCM diagnosis describes a pattern of harmony or disharmony. This involves assessing the condition of spirit, essence, energy, blood, fluids, organs and channels.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that health is dependent on Qi (energy) – which, when in good health, moves in a smooth and balanced way through a chain of fourteen main channels (Jing Luo in Chinese) mapped out throughout the body. Stress, anger, or any intense emotion acts like a traffic jam, blocking the free flow of energy in the body. For example, many people who are very stressed out complain of upper back, shoulder and neck pain. This is because stress is causing tension in those areas, blocking the free flow of energy, causing pain, tightness, and often leading to headaches.

By inserting needles into the acupuncture points, which lie at specific predetermined anatomical locations on these channels, we stimulate body’s energy (Qi) to start the healing process and assist it to restore its natural balance. Acupuncture points can help energy flow smoothly, and alleviate not only the symptoms of stress and anxiety, but the stress and anxiety itself.

Positive changes in lifestyle and exercise are also very valuable to the anxiety sufferer. Activities such as Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga are excellent forms of mind-body exercise that can improve the ability to control both Anxiety and depression. Diet also plays an important part in the treatment of anxiety. Too much refined sugars, for example, can cause wild fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can significantly affect one’s mood and mental health. They also deplete B vitamins from the body, which can affect the nervous system. Excessive amounts of caffeine can create “toxic heat” in the liver, causing a rise in anger and anxiety. As an adrenal stimulant, caffeine can ultimately lead to adrenal exhaustion and depression. Substituting refined sugar and caffeine with low glycemic foods and beverages can result in a reduced anxiety. Practicing these changes in conjunction with regular acupuncture treatments will provide the foundation for a positive change and medication free life for the anxiety sufferer. TCM treatments for anxiety and depression are unique for each patient, as every person has a unique constitution and set of imbalances. As a patient’s symptoms and issues adjust, a practitioner will likely change his or her treatments accordingly.

From a Western viewpoint, acupuncture works to alleviate stress by releasing natural pain-killing chemicals in the brain, called endorphins. In addition, acupuncture improves circulation of blood throughout the body, which oxygenates the tissues and cycles out cortisol and other waste chemicals. The calming nature of acupuncture also decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles.

Acupuncture and TCM Vs Western Medical prescription drug therapies

Western Medicine offers many options in the treatment of anxiety in the form of prescription medication. Unfortunately unlike acupuncture, these come with many undesirable side effects.

Benzodiazepines-Alprazolam (Xanax), Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan) A group of drugs that help reduce anxiety and have sedating effects. They work quickly, but they can be habit forming and are usually prescribed for short-term use. They may cause drowsiness, constipation, or nausea.

Buspirone (BuSpar)- An anti-anxiety drug that does not seem to cause drowsiness or dependence. However, you must take it for 2 weeks before feeling any effect. Side effects can include insomnia, nervousness, light-headedness, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and headaches.

Antidepressants- Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Escitalopram (Lexapro), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Venlafaxine (Effexor) A group of drugs that act on the same brain chemicals believed to be involved in anxiety.

Acupuncture in the treatment of anxiety has many excellences. In the hands of a trained, registered practitioner it is completely safe and free of side effects. It is immediate in result. While not every acupuncture session provides complete and full relief right away, as soon as you leave the acupuncturist (and in some cases the next morning), much of your anxiety should be diminished. Compare this to long-term treatments that generally require you to work on your anxiety a little at a time over a long period of time. For those with severe anxiety, that can be advantageous. It resolves the root issue of the anxiety alleviating all of the various symptoms. It does not interfere with other medications or treatments. It is suitable for all ages and states of health and perfectly safe during pregnancy.

An Acupuncture treatment is tailor-made to the patient. This means that rather than looking simply at “anxiety” and inserting “anxiety points”, it looks at how anxiety is affecting the individual specifically. What signs and symptoms are present for this individual at different times throughout their condition and treats accordingly leading to an anxiety free future.

Hannah O’Connell
Castlewood Clinic, 19 Castlewood Terrace, Rathmines, Dublin 6

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