Acupuncture for Anxiety | An Expert Guide


Acupuncture may not be something that you ordinarily associate with mental health and relief from anxiety. But there are many ways in which acupuncture can help you navigate the challenges of mental health, whether through an improvement to your physical well-being, or helping to relieve stress. Before you can fully appreciate those advantages, it’s important to understand acupuncture as a treatment, and the principles that underlie it.

The origins of acupuncture

Let’s start with the philosophy. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice based on the notion that the body has as many as 2,000 nerve points, which combine to create meridians that carry physiological responses. Those physiological responses form Qi, which according to Chinese medicine, is the energy (or life force) that flows along your body’s meridians. Illness can occur when Qi is blocked, and acupuncture stimulates your body’s meridians to reinvigorate the flow of Qi through your body.

Of course, that’s only a quick overview of a vast philosophy. But how does it help to improve your mental health? It’s simple—maintaining the freedom of your body’s physiological responses is a great way to promote health and wellness. In many cases, physical wellness and mental wellness are intertwined, and that’s something that acupuncturists are trained to recognise as part of their holistic approach to your treatment.

How does acupuncture help anxiety?

If you suffer from anxiety, you’re aware that it is an acute physiological response. The symptoms of anxiety are born of the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response to danger, but anxiety occurs when there is no danger.

According to the philosophy of Qi, physiological responses travel through your body’s meridians and can contribute to illness when restricted. In that sense, your anxiety may represent an internal imbalance that exists somewhere within the meridians. Under those principles, your body’s physical response—sweating, shaking, hyperventilation, etc.—may be a manifestation of your imbalance, or ‘block.’  Acupuncture is designed to alleviate the internal tension that gives rise to your body’s physiological response, and in that way, you may find it a useful tool in your search for emotional wellbeing.

How does acupuncture relieve stress?

Stress is similar to anxiety, but it’s healthy to have a small degree of stress—it helps to keep us away from danger, and can also prompt us to be productive. However, when stress becomes overwhelming, it can start to have a negative effect on your physical and mental health. A common symptom of stress is muscle stiffness (often in the neck), headaches, and fatigue, all of which can be addressed by acupuncture. Often, the physical complaints that accompany stress contribute to a cycle of stress and tension, so, addressing those physical complaints early with acupuncture is a fantastic way to break the cycle.

Often, though, you needn’t even think that far into it. Stress is almost always situational, and taking the time to care for yourself through acupuncture is another great way to break the cycle. Your problems will probably seem bigger in the workplace, compared to in an acupuncture clinic. Acupuncturists are trained to create welcoming and relaxing spaces that are sure to take you away from your situational stressors, at least for a little while. That’s another great way to break the cycle of stress, even before it can contribute to more physical complaints like neck pain or headaches.

How does acupuncture help depression?

Depression affects many of us, and it can be one of the toughest mental illnesses to break down. That’s why a holistic and multifaceted treatment approach is necessary. Holistic treatment is a key tenet of Chinese medicine, which recognises that to treat one ailment, you must treat the body as a whole. According to the philosophy of acupuncture, depression could represent a block in your body’s meridians in much the same way as anxiety. But there are other factors that could be causing your depression too.

Chronic pain is an example of one such factor. People with chronic pain can suffer depression at rates as high as 40%, and in those cases, successful treatment of depression can depend on successful pain management. Luckily, acupuncture is known to be an effective tool in the fight against chronic pain, and can therefore be a useful element of the holistic treatment required for depression.

How many treatments are needed?

In short—it varies! The answer to this question is entirely subjective, and it will depend on a range of factors including who is being treated, and what they are being treated for. Acupuncture is often used to alleviate acute pain, and it could be effective with only a few sessions. On the other hand, it is often used to treat chronic pain, and in many such cases it is used on a monthly, fortnightly, or even weekly basis for many months. Acupuncturists are trained to develop treatment plans that address your specific needs.

When it comes to stress, depression, and anxiety, it’s unlikely that you’ll experience a complete improvement overnight. You’ll need to commit to a treatment plan for a certain period until the causes of your complaints can be identified and addressed. If your mental health issues are primarily related to chronic pain, you’ll probably be happier when you’re feeling less pain. But if your issues relate to acute stress—maybe in the context of workplace pressure—then you might find more sudden relief from acupuncture.

Are there any side effects to acupuncture?

Like any treatment, acupuncture can have certain side effects. However, compared to many Western medicinal solutions, the side effects are comparatively mild, and rare. Generally, adverse side effects are limited to fatigue, and mild soreness around the needle sites.

Acupuncture is a gentle form of Eastern therapy, and it can release many feelings of tension both physically and mentally. When those tensions are released, it is not uncommon to feel heightened emotional sensitivity, or even feelings of being overwhelmed. They ordinarily subside after a brief period, along with any physical side effects you may encounter. If you’ve got any more questions about possible side effects, you should ask your acupuncturist before your treatment starts.

Can acupuncture work with Western medicine?

Holistic treatment isn’t limited to Chinese medicine. In fact, a lot of Western medical practitioners have come to appreciate the importance of treating all aspects of the body in a multidisciplinary setting. As a result of that transition, acupuncture and Western medicine work exceptionally well together, and it’s not uncommon for general practitioners to refer their patients for acupuncture treatment.

If you’re already receiving multidisciplinary treatment for your stress, anxiety, or depression, it’s important that you inform your treating practitioners of your acupuncture sessions. That will allow everyone involved in your care to assess any positive changes to your mental wellbeing, and respond accordingly. If you’re taking antidepressant medication, then you should also let your acupuncturist know. Performing acupuncture is about striking a perfect balance—you need to know which factors are affecting the body at any given time. So, if there is medication affecting your body’s physiological responses, your acupuncturist may need to make some adjustments to your treatment.

Are there acupuncturists who specialise in anxiety?

Like most therapies, there are acupuncturists with specialties in a wide range of physical and mental ailments. However, most focus on holistic treatment and try not to confine themselves to any one area. After all, the key principle of acupuncture is to treat the body as a whole, rather than to focus on any single problem. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to form a solid therapeutic partnership with an acupuncturist in relation to your anxiety.

The key is to find a qualified and accredited acupuncturist with whom you feel comfortable. That will allow you to discuss your issues candidly and frankly, so that your treating practitioner gains a complete picture of your condition. Your acupuncturist will ask you a wide range of detailed questions, as well, so you should prepare yourself to answer a number of personal questions relating to your health (if you are comfortable doing so). By getting to the bottom of your physical health, your acupuncturist can work towards addressing possible sources of your stress, anxiety, or depression.