Acupuncture & Anxiety: How can acupuncture reduce anxiety & improve wellbeing?
Anxiety is often a natural response to stressful situations but for 40 million US adults, or 18% of the US population, anxiety becomes more than just a transitory experience; it becomes an entrenched dysfunctional emotional response. One in eight children are affected by anxiety disorders. It’s estimated that 80% of children go untreated for their anxiety and only 50% of adults receive treatment. Anxiety disorders include: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, PTSD and OCD. Anxiety disorder is often concurrent with depression, chronic pain, eating disorder, body dysmorphia and sleep disorders. The underlying cause of anxiety disorder may be genetic, trauma, stress, brain chemistry, substance abuse, nutritional deficiencies, other medical conditions and often a combination of these. (www.nimh.nih.gov)
Those with anxiety disorders are two to six times more likely to visit medical doctors for other health related reasons. Western medicine is finally beginning to recognize the connection between emotions and physical illnesses but more often than not people with anxiety disorders are seeing multiple doctors for all their different symptoms and taking a handful of pills to manage multiple symptoms. (http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/anxiety_and_physical_illness)
For over 2,000 years Oriental Medicine theory(OM), also known as Eastern Medicine (EM) or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), the guiding theory of acupuncture/acupressure has taught that the internal cause of most physical illnesses have their origin in an emotional imbalance and the reverse: that a physical imbalance can in turn lead to an emotional imbalance.
How does acupressure and acupuncture work to resolve and prevent anxiety? Several biochemical explanations have been revealed by recent research. Anxiety is associated with an activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Tsigos, 2002). The HPA axis is how our brain and endocrine system interact to modulate the stress response. Recent studies indicate that acupuncture decreases and moderates the activation of the the HPA axis thereby decreasing the effects of stress, including the experience of anxiety (Eshkevari, 2013). Anxiety is also associated with low vagal tone (vagus nerve) which leads to low dopamine levels.
According to EM theory, anxiety is associated with the Heart which ‘houses’ the Spirit-Mind also called the Shen. The Heart is associated with the element of Fire. The Heart is also considered the Emperor or Empress, the supreme, benevolent ruler of the body. When the Heart is at peace then the Spirit-Mind (Shen) is calm and the body is in harmony.
Consider this East-West integrative way of understanding anxiety by drawing connections between the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the function of the Heart & Kidney in EM. The hypothalamus among other things regulates heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and sleep cycles paralleling many of the functions EM ascribes to the heart. The pituitary gland is often called the Master gland of the endocrine system regulating all the other endocrine glands in the body, similar to the Heart’s role as the Emperor of the body. The adrenal glands are situated on top of the Kidneys: in EM the kidneys and adrenals are associated with the element of Water. Emotional and physical wellbeing rely on a balance of Yin (Water) and Yang (Fire) as essential for a calm Shen.
Self Acupressure Routine for Quelling Anxiety
One of the best acu-points to calm the heart and reduce anxiety and increase melatonin production (improving sleep cycles) is Ht7 (Spence 2004). H7 is located on the wrist crease above the pinkie finger . Place gentle pressure here, you’ll feel a pulse. Hold this point and take long, slow, full deep breaths.
At the same time you’re holding Ht7 you can place your feet on on the floor stimulating the acupoint Ki1 with a small ball or marble. Ki1 is located below the ball of the foot between the 2nd and 3rd toe.
Visualize water in the lower half of your body and fire in the upper half or focus on the sensation of temperature: feeling heat in the upper half and coolness in the lower half. And as you breathe and hold the acu-points feel the sensation of coolness balancing the heat, or water rising up to meet the fire and fire dropping down meet the water. Bringing your Fire and Water in to balance to calm your Shen-mind.
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and it interacts with the heart, lungs, esophagus, digestive tract, adrenals and the uterus. This helps explain why those with anxiety often have multiple health symptoms. Acupuncture has been shown to improve vagal tone, which helps improve health symptoms in related organs while naturally stimulating higher dopamine levels (Torres-Rosas, 2014). The acupuncture point most often utilized in these studies is St36, ZuSanLi. Try doing acupressure at this point: Locate St36 by placing one hand just below the outer knee cap (index finger by the knee cap), use your other hand to find St 36 (just below your pinkie finger) just off the outer shin.
According to EM, what brings the heart out of balance is ‘over-joy’; in essence this refers to being overly stimulated and overly excited. In a culture where ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and pleasure is a social value, where we are constantly entangled with technology and media, especially social media, and where FOMO (fear of missing out) has become common enough to receive its own acronym - its easy to understand how ‘over-joy’ can lead to a state of perpetual anxiety. To cultivate a serene mind and calm your inner Empress/Emperor develop a moving mediation practice such as yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi, or taking long, mediative walks. Resolve to do a tech/media ‘cleanse’ and disengage from technology and media for short, therapeutic doses (15-60 min per day) and build up to longer and longer periods away (1-3 days). Spend time with less ‘going on’ around you. Reducing your overall sensory stimulation can help you cultivate a calmer Shen.
Try herbs for anxiety! A licensed acupuncture practitioner can help quell your anxiety and calm your mind and body.
Come try Acupuncture & herbal medicine for anxiety @ Yin Rising Acupuncture with Anna Lunaria,, L.Ac.!
Bergland, Christopher, Feb. 02, 2013, The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure: 8 Habits that Stimulate your vagus Nerve and Keep You Calm, Cool, and Collected https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201302/the-neurobiology-grace-under-pressure
Eshkevari, L., Permaul, E., & Mulroney, S. E. (2013). Acupuncture blocks cold stress-induced increases in the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis in the rat. Journal of Endocrinology, 217(1), 95-104.
Spence, D. W., Kayumov, L., Chen, A., Lowe, A., Jain, U., Katzman, M. A., ... & Shapiro, C. M. (2004). Acupuncture increases nocturnal melatonin secretion and reduces insomnia and anxiety: a preliminary report. The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences.
Stix, Gary, May 1, 2014, Can Acupuncture Curb Killer Immune Reactions? A Needle-Based Technique has been shown to switch on naves that tamp down sepsis, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-acupuncture-curb-killer-immune-reactions/
Torres-Rosas, R., Yehia, G., Peña, G., Mishra, P., del Rocio Thompson-Bonilla, M., Moreno-Eutimio, M. A., ... & Ulloa, L. (2014). Dopamine mediates vagal modulation of the immune system by electroacupuncture. Nature medicine, 20(3), 291-295.
Tsigos, C., & Chrousos, G. P. (2002). Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. Journal of psychosomatic research, 53(4), 865-871.