Acupuncture Is the Natural Anxiety Remedy You Might Want to Try
When you’re stressed about everything from your workload to politics to why your jeans suddenly feel so tight, you’d think having a bunch of needles jammed into your skin would be the last thing to help you feel better. But acupuncture has anecdotal and scientific evidence backing up its powers.
For thousands of years, this Chinese practice has helped alleviate a host of physical and mental conditions, and modern medicine has warmed up to the idea that anxiety might be one of them. Here’s what we know (so far) about acupuncture to treat anxiety symptoms, 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 along your anatomy. They need to be inserted into 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, tells 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,” Trattner explains.
Here’s an example. Tell your acupuncturist you’re feeling anxious and also waking up sweaty in the middle of the night, and she 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 its magic. “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, tells Health.
When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system—the one that controls your “fight or flight” system—takes over, Flores explains, 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 takes hold in you.
“Acupuncture treatment helps shift the body back into a relaxed state where the sympathetic system is more balanced and no longer dominating,” says Flores.
What the science says
Several studies done on both animals and humans show that “acupuncture needling has demonstrable physiological effects on and may modify the neural functioning believed to be implicated in…anxiety,” Rosa N. Schnyer, a clinical assistant professor of nursing at The University of Texas at Austin who researches acupuncture in the treatment of depression, tells Health.
And lest you think the placebo effect (“I believe it’ll work, therefore it will!”) is responsible, Schnyer says brain scans show that acupuncture normalizes the signals that reach your limbic system, which controls your body’s “fight or flight” response. Results from several clinical trials also show that acupuncture can be an effective way to manage anxiety, “but these findings are still preliminary and more research needs to be done,” says Schnyer.
Still, she estimates that 9 out of every 10 of her clients respond well to acupuncture. “Patients tell me all the time, ‘wow!’” acknowledges Schnyer. “As a practitioner, I see people transformed from being on edge to basically finding their Zen. 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?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a division of the NIH), acupuncture is relatively risk-free, so long as you go to an accredited practitioner who uses sterile needles. (Single-use disposable needles are the industry standard.) And unlike 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,” says Trattner, “or a series of regular visits can get to the root cause of anxiety and help manage it.”
Flores says 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,” she explains.
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,” says Schnyer. “Your body knows how to do this. All you have to do is get out of the way.”