Acupuncture as an Effective Treatment of Anxiety
The Struggle is Real, but Acupuncture is on Point.
By Melissa Pulicicchio, LaC.
As a licensed Acupuncturist practicing on Oahu, the one complaint that is ubiquitous among my patients is anxiety/stress. The level of stress and anxiety that we all experience in this crazy world is much more elevated than it was pre-pandemic. During the height of the lockdowns, it was likely common for you to hear comments like: “this pandemic is driving me crazy…” or “I am losing my ___.” If we take a closer look at this social-psychological dilemma that we are all facing at some level and how to cope with it, we may find that, firstly, we do need to be proactive about regaining our mental health and there are some age-old treatments, such as Acupuncture and good old-fashion exercise, that can really help us take ownership of our state of well-being. With acupuncture being included as an effective treatment in the 11thEdition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) published in 2021, it is gaining attention as a primary healthcare treatment, as scientific research is showing that it offers real solutions. Moreover, now that Acupuncture has the attention of the western medical community, the latter stands to gain important insights – known by Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, such as the fundamental importance of our mental health in our physical health. Whereby, as acupuncture has built a good reputation for being effective in treating muscle and joint pains in the US, mostly by way of word of mouth, many are not aware of its ability to effectively treat mental conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression, ADHD and addiction. Although, many patients that come to my clinic complaining about muscle pain, leave saying: “I had no idea how much anxiety I had.” As often we only realize our mental challenges when we get “un-stuck.”
Anxiety – the Struggle is Real
Before delving into the science, it is important to tread lightly when throwing around words and labels, such as anxiety, stress, depression and disorder. In general, it is safe to say that we all have more anxiety and stress than pre-pandemic levels. Well, generalized anxiety disorder, is a mental illness defined in DSM-V as “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not.” In terms of what is considered to be excessive, it is arguable; however the numbers of things that we have to worry about are a bit excessive these days. While, it is certainly less plausible to assert that we all have generalized anxiety disorder, we could all likely agree on the observation that society at large is looking a little skitzo in its current manifestation. So, maybe society is literally driving us crazy. So how do we keep our stress, anxiety and bouts of depression from becoming a disorder? Easy, tongue in cheek, run five miles a day. Of course, when we are battling such mental struggles, which are real, meditation and exercise practices seem to be a laughable luxury, especially when there is not enough time in the day.
Moreover, what exactly is anxiety on the mental/physiological level? Rather than simply resorting to the clinical definition, let us discuss what it really means for each of us in the here and now. Whereby, it may be easier to define it by stating what it is like when it is not there. That is, anxiety and stress arise when peace-of-mind is no longer present. In acupuncture, there is an emphasis on getting to the root of the symptom, as opposed to simply treating the symptom, as in western medicine. Therefore, in order to combat stress and anxiety, we simply need to achieve our natural state of being where our mind is at peace and we can lucidly confront any challenge that comes before us. Some may say that the “stress” is/are the bills piling up and my children being at home sick, when I need to be working, etc… However, can you recollect a time when you had a significant challenge in your life, which you were distraught about, and then all of a sudden, perhaps after resting and getting some exercise you realized that ah–ha moment, and you saw how simple it would be to resolve it… If you have experienced that level of mental clarity before you can get back there again and anything less than this state of mind is in practice – stress, anxiety and depression.
As for the cause of the inability to maintain this lucid state of mind, whether you have lingering Covid brain fog or like most of society, you are being bombarded with too much information, in the form of social media, having to work more to earn less, the constant negative news, or whatever it may be, it does not take science to tell you that you don’t have the energy to deal with it all. Therefore, when the struggle is real the inherent solution is to increase how energetic you are feeling, which is where Acupuncture is on point. Whereby, all of that “stuff” that we are dealing with has an impact on brain function at the molecular level and Acupuncture functions to improve energetic flows throughout the brain and body. As, the foundational axiom of acupuncture is to intervene with the energetic flows in the body in order to achieve an equilibrium, i.e. your natural state of being. Furthermore, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches us that once your physiology is in balance, the body will take care of (“cure”) the rest, not magically, but rather by the increase in blood flow and activating the autonomic nervous system (Gakkai, 2002). This may appear to be too simplistic from the perspective of our western society, where we are taught to believe that complex technology is necessary to achieve successful medical outcomes. However, if we put the healing process under the microscope, it is easy to see that healing, at the molecular level, is a matter of delivering the right molecular material to the right receptor/location in the most efficient manner possible; i.e. energetic flow, which is known as Chi in Acupuncture.
Recent clinical research on the efficacy of acupuncture in improving physical and mental health, when treating a wide variety of illnesses is starting to establish the ancient practice of Acupuncture as being less “alternative” and more mainstream. This can be seen by the inclusion of acupuncture in ICD-11, which is the gold standard that hospitals around the world use as the basis for structuring their healthcare services. The demystification of acupuncture, among healthcare practitioners, is centered around the general understanding that it functions to improve the flow of energy throughout the body. While in terms of anxiety, stress and depression, western science has demonstrated that increased brain blood flow is associated with improving such symptoms (Lucey, et al., 1997).
Putting this in western medical terms, acupuncture produces its effects through modulation of the functioning of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, as well as the exocrine glands which are triggered by inserting very thin needles into the skin and muscles. Whereby, there is consensus in the western medical literature that acupuncture has profound effects at all levels of the nervous system, including everything from the peripheral nerves, to the spinal cord and particularly in the brain. Whereby, within the brain, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) the vast body of knowledge that instructs acupuncture, via the precise placement of the needles, cupping and moxibustion, specific effects on the functioning of the cerebral cortex, the limbic system, hypothalamus and pituitary gland have been observed. Furthermore, animal and human studies suggest that the beneficial effects of acupuncture on health, including mental and emotional functioning, are related to an array of mechanisms of action, including the attenuation of neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation such as serotonin, modulation of the autonomic nervous system and regulation of the immune function.
Furthermore, while western medicine is making strides to integrate the historically isolated fields of medicine, in acupuncture, emotions and physical health are connected. Sadness, nervous tension, anger, worry, fear and being overworked are each associated with a particular organ in the body. Once the organ that is out of balance is identified, the unique symptoms of the patient determine the acupuncturist’s treatment approach. This approach differs from western traditional western medicine in that, while it is effective in treating physical ailments, the TCM doctrine instructs that all illness originates in the mind. Therefore, Acupuncture or TCM represents a holistic approach, where both mental and physical symptoms are always taken into consideration, so as to treat the whole self.
There is good scientific evidence encouraging acupuncture therapy to treat anxiety disorders as it yields effective outcomes, with fewer side effects than conventional treatment.
Chart of Fundamental Concepts in Acupuncture
EMOTIONS ARE LINKED TO FIVE BASIC FEELINGS THAT ARE ASSOCIATED WITH A SPECIFIC ORGAN AND ELEMENT IN THE BODY, AS SEEN BELOW:
The Wood element, is associated with the emotion of Anger, which corresponds to the Liver organ.
The Water element, is associated with the emotion of Fear, which corresponds to the Kidney organ.
The Fire element, is associated with the emotion of Joy, which corresponds to the Heart organ.
The Metal element, is associated with the emotion of Sadness and Grief, which corresponds to the Lung organ.
The Earth element, is associated with the emotion of Worry, which corresponds to the Spleen organ.