Curious about trying acupuncture for anxiety? Here’s what you need to know first


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Anxiety is one of the worst feelings ever. The symptoms can range from a feeling of tightness and heaviness in your chest to a full-blown panic attack complete with a racing heartbeat, hyperventilation, a wave of fear rushing through your body, and feeling as though you’re literally going to die.

Regardless of the extent of the anxiety you experience, it’s definitely not easy to deal with. It can feel like an endless trial and error process, trying everything from meditation and breathing exercises to CBD oil. While medication does offer relief for many, others hope to find the answer through natural treatments such as fitness, magnesium supplements, or dietary changes.

Another buzzed about natural treatment for anxiety is acupuncture. The ancient practice of inserting small needles into pressure points is said to help with a host of different ailments including a low libido, trouble conceiving, and even allergies. And research has shown that acupuncture could be effective in improving symptoms of anxiety, too.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can you possibly relax when you’re laying there with a bunch of needles all over your body? The thought alone might induce a panic attack. But, acupuncture is actually a pretty painless experience. The needles are super thin—like a strand of hair thin—and most people don’t even feel them, says Calley Williams, licensed acupuncturist and owner of Seed of Life Acupuncture in Los Angeles.

Below, she answers all the top questions about acupuncture for anxiety, including the benefits of it and what exactly happens during a session.

Thumbnail for Curious about trying acupuncture for anxiety? Here’s what you need to know first
Photo: Getty Images/Hero Images

What is acupuncture and how does it work?

Williams explains that acupuncture is energy work, routed in Traditional Chinese Medicine. “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,” she says. By inserting needles in specific acupuncture points depending on the issue, you’re “telling the body where to focus its own innate healing energy.”

What are the 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 sleep, digestion, and energy levels can all improve.

What are the side effects?

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. She says that most people feel much calmer after each session, but in order to see long lasting results, it’s best to get treatments regularly—it varies from person to person—for an extended period of time. People with deep rooted trauma or chronic anxiety may need to attend acupuncture sessions longer than someone with acute anxiety.

In the beginning, Williams recommends keeping 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 session?

Every acupuncturist has their own style and way of treating patients. The key is to find an acupuncturist with credible training (make sure they’re licensed) 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 lay 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. But really, it’s all about listening to your body and what it needs.

Since you’re not cured yet, here’s how to use your anxiety to your benefit. And this is why it’s so powerful that celebrities are speaking out about mental health.

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