Symptoms of anxiety are expansive. They can include feelings of tightness and heaviness in your chest, panic attacks, a racing heartbeat, hyperventilation, and a wave of fear rushing through your body, for a few examples. But what if you could pinpoint the source of these feelings make them melt away? That's basically the premise of using acupuncture for anxiety.
Acupuncture is an ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice that involves inserting small needles into pressure points. Targeting the pressure points is said to help with a host of different ailments, including a low libido, trouble conceiving, and even allergies. Research has shown that acupuncture could be effective in improving symptoms of anxiety, too.
"Each organ has its own energetic channel that runs throughout the body and that’s where we can access the energy of those organs to figure out which systems are out of balance," says Calley Williams, licensed acupuncturist and owner of Seed of Life Acupuncture in Los Angeles. "By inserting needles in specific acupuncture points depending on the issue, you’re "telling the body where to focus its own innate healing energy."
If you’re thinking that laying down with a bunch of needles all over your body is enough by itself to induce a panic attack, rest assured: Acupuncture is actually a pretty painless experience (and one that should always be administered by a trained and accredited professional). The needles are super thin, and according to Williams, most people don’t even feel them.
Below, find everything you need to know about using acupuncture for anxiety, including the benefits of trying it, risks involved, and—specifically—what to expect.
3 benefits of doing acupuncture for anxiety
1. It takes the body out of fight-or-flight mode
In today’s fast-paced world, we've become accustomed to operating from our sympathetic nervous system, meaning our fight-or flight-response. It's intended to keep us safe, but it's constantly getting activated, resulting in lots of anxiety. So the main benefit of doing acupuncture, Williams says, is to bring the body back to the parasympathetic state where everything slows down and stressful events don’t completely derail you.
2. It balances the body
Even if you pop in for acupuncture treatments with the intention to relieve your anxiety, you could experience other benefits as a byproduct. "You’re treating the entire body," Williams says. "It’s going to be a ripple effect.” Things like your digestion, and energy levels can all improve.
3. It can solve the issue of restless nights
Stress and anxiety are common culprits when it comes to a blocking good night's sleep. Luckily, acupuncture can have almost a tranquilizing effect on the body, and some people even report falling asleep mid-poke. Yes, it's that soothing.
Are there any risks of acupuncture?
Some people can feel a little sore after acupuncture, and it could leave a minor bruise. There could be a little bleeding, too, but nothing that would require more than a Band-Aid.
How soon will you feel results?
According to Williams, the key to seeing success through acupuncture for anxiety is consistency in treatment. She says that many people feel much calmer after each session, but in order to see long-lasting results, it's best to get treatments regularly—the exact frequency varies from person to person—for an extended period of time. People with deep-rooted trauma or chronic anxiety may benefit from attending acupuncture sessions for longer than someone who has acute anxiety.
In the beginning, Williams recommends you keep your treatments closer together—once or twice a week—because you’re essentially retraining your body to operate in a new way and if you space your treatments out too much, you can easily slip back into the fight-or-flight way of being. Once you do start feeling the zen results, you can scale back on the number of sessions to once a week, then once a month, and so on.
What can you expect during an acupuncture for anxiety session?
Every acupuncturist has their own style and way of treating patients. The key is to find a licensed practitioner who you feel comfortable with. The treatment, in and of itself, is going to be very different from person to person as well, because the underlying issues of the anxiety vary.
Your first acupuncture session will likely kick off with a consultation, Williams says, where you'll be asked lots of questions to get a good picture of what’s going on in your body; digestion, energy levels, and sleep quality are brought up.
Williams then has the patient lie down on a massage table, and she’ll do Chinese medicine diagnostics to access which acupuncture points are needed to correct imbalances in different organs. This includes checking the pulse and taking a look at the tongue. "Each organ has its own position on the pulse," she explains. And similarly, the tongue is split up into different organs. In Japanese-style acupuncture, which is what she practices, the treatment includes both a front and back treatment. "The front treatment is a bit shorter because it’s all about balancing the channels," Williams says. The needles are usually in for five to seven minutes during this part.
Then she’ll do the needling on the back, which is "more about treating on a deeper level and nourishing all the symptoms of the body," she says. "This is also where we can treat both physical symptoms and emotional symptoms.” This part lasts for about 15 to 20 minutes.
At the end, expect to feel totally blissed out. A common response after a first treatment is, "I didn’t know this state of calm was possible." Although there isn’t anything that you can’t or shouldn’t do after an acupuncture appointment, Williams does recommend riding the chill vibes—so maybe forgoing the intense SoulCycle sesh and going for a brisk walk instead, for example.
And no worries if acupuncture doesn't seem like the route for you for treating your symptoms of anxiety or otherwise. Some people respond better to psychotherapy, CBD gummies, medications, or other strategies. Really, it’s all about listening to your body and what it needs.
Originally published October 28, 2018.
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