Acupuncture Is the Natural Anxiety Remedy You Might Want To Try

It's considered generally safe when performed by an experienced practitioner.

When you're stressed about everything from your workload to politics to why your jeans suddenly feel so tight, having multiple needles pierce your skin might not be your idea of self-care. But acupuncture has anecdotal and scientific evidence backing up its effectiveness.

For thousands of years, this Chinese practice has been used to alleviate pain and treat other medical conditions according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).¹ And now there's some research to suggest that it may be useful for anxiety, too.

Here's what we know about using acupuncture to relieve symptoms of anxiety and what you can expect if you try it.

How Acupuncture for Anxiety Works

If you go for an acupuncture treatment, you'll give a thorough medical history to your practitioner. Then, you'll relax on a comfortable table, face up or down, while very fine needles—about the width of a hair—are carefully inserted under the surface of your skin. When done right, they shouldn't hurt.

But the needles don't just go in random places across your anatomy. They need to be inserted into acupoints—very specific locations based on your physical or mental symptoms. Points for anxiety may include your breastbone, between your eyebrows, or the insides of your wrists.

The reason for these placements? According to Chinese medicine, energy, or "qi," flows up and down pathways in the body. "Sometimes the energy is blocked, deficient, excessive, or unbalanced. This puts the body out of balance and in turn, causes illness," Elizabeth Trattner, a board-certified doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine who practices in Miami Beach, Florida, told Health. "Acupuncture restores homeostasis and encourages healing."

As a part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture uses a "whole system" approach to health. "We don't separate the physical and mental aspects [of a patient], as they're both intimately tied together," explained Trattner.

Here's an example. If you tell your acupuncturist you're feeling anxious and also waking up sweaty in the middle of the night, they won't think you're complaining about two totally different issues. You just described symptoms of one of the most common explanations for anxiety in Chinese medicine: "yin deficiency."

If that sounds too far out there for you, there is a more Western answer for how acupuncture can work. "Acupuncture eases anxiety by regulating the nervous system, specifically by bringing the branches of the autonomic nervous system back into balance," Ashley Flores, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago who sees many women for anxiety, especially anxiety that has to do with fertility and pregnancy, told Health.

When you're anxious, your sympathetic nervous system—the one that controls your "fight or flight" system—takes over, Flores explained, whereas your parasympathetic ("rest and digest" system) is stifled. This explains why your heart hammers in your chest, and you can feel short of breath as anxiety manifests.

"Acupuncture treatment helps shift the body back into a relaxed state where the sympathetic system is more balanced and no longer dominating," said Flores.

What the Science Says

Many studies on acupuncture's therapeutic effects focus on low-back, neck, and knee pain as well as headache, reports the NCCIH.² But there's also some evidence that needling may be useful for easing anxiety in people with chronic pain. The authors of a 2021 review in Frontiers in Neuroscience suggest that acupuncture may regulate regions of the brain that play a role in both pain and emotion.³

Brain scans show that acupuncture normalizes the signals that reach your limbic system, Rosa N. Schnyer, a doctor of Chinese medicine and clinical assistant professor of nursing at The University of Texas at Austin, told Health. That's the part of the brain that controls your body's "fight or flight" response.

So what about acupuncture as a treatment for anxiety disorders?

The authors of a January 2021 study in the Annals of General Psychiatry looked at 20 studies of acupuncture in people with generalized anxiety disorder. Their conclusion: Acupuntcure can be beneficial in reducing anxious symptoms when compared with medication, sham acupuncture, and other non-acupuncture therapies. Still, it's not clear whether people with other types of anxiety might benefit. More high-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to understand how effective acupuncture might be in treating different types of anxiety disorders.⁴

"As a practitioner, I see people transformed from being on edge to basically finding their Zen," said. Schnyer. "It's like [acupuncture] completely resets the nervous system, and when that happens, a lot of other things begin to happen."

Should You Treat Your Anxiety With Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is relatively safe so long as you go to an accredited practitioner who uses sterile needles, per the NCCIH.² (Single-use disposable needles are the industry standard.)

If you prefer to stay away from taking medication for anxiety, acupuncture might be a good alternative. A February 2022 study from the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences compared acupuncture and pharmacological treatment. People who had acupuncture before gallbladder surgery or hernia repair had less preoperative anxiety than those took the anti-anxiety medication Midazolam, a type of benzodiazepine.⁵

Additionally, compared to the effects of some medications for anxiety—like antidepressants, which can take weeks to fully kick in—the effects of acupuncture are sometimes felt immediately. "For some women, a treatment is all it takes," said Trattner, "or a series of regular visits can get to the root cause of anxiety and help manage it."

Flores said she often detects a swift change in her client's breathing and pulse rate. "They might notice that their muscles feel looser, a headache goes away, or that their eyes start to water—all signs of the body shifting out of sympathetic dominance," explained Flores.

If you're feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, acupuncture may be worth a try (especially if your health insurance covers it; some plans do). "What we're doing here is resetting, just like you reset a computer," said Schnyer. "Your body knows how to do this. All you have to do is get out of the way."

Sources:

  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need to Know.
  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Acupuncture: In Depth.
  3. Lin LL, Li HP, Yang JW, et al. Acupuncture for Psychological Disorders Caused by Chronic Pain: A Review and Future Directions. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2021;14:626497. Published 2021 Jan 27. doi:10.3389/fnins.2020.626497
  4. Yang X-yun, Yang N-bo, Huang F-fang, Ren S, Li Z-jiang. Effectiveness of acupuncture on anxiety disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials. Annals of General Psychiatry. 2021;20(1). doi:10.1186/s12991-021-00327-5
  5. Zanella S, Buccelletti F, Vassiliadis A, et al. Preoperative anxiety management: acupuncture vs. pharmacological treatment - A prospective study. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. 2022;26(3):900-905. doi:10.26355/eurrev_202202_27999
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