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Category Archives: Stress & Anxiety
Although distinct from each other, these two conditions are remarkably common, and a great many people will experience one or both at some point in their lives. Acupuncture can be extremely useful, and television presenter Donna Air has talked about having acupuncture to help with the stress of live TV work. Film director Tim Newton, has also talked about his experience of using acupuncture for stress.
Definitions are broad, but on the whole, we might say stress is perceived when we feel under an unwelcome amount of pressure (time, commitments, work, money etc). It may cause symptoms ranging from brooding resentment to irritability, or headaches to indigestion.
Anxiety on the other hand, is an emotion often physically experienced in the region of the heart. It may be accompanied by an awareness of the heart beating, a rapid or pounding heart, a vague unease in the chest, or shallow, rapid breathing. Anxiety can undermine self-confidence, and people can be left feeling it is holding them back in their lives (career progression, travel, meeting new friends etc). The physical symptoms which come with stress and anxiety, can create worry which then leads to more stress and further worry. Recent evidence (1) suggests acupuncture is an effective treatment for anxiety.
When we are under stress, an area of the brain called the hypothalamus releases certain neurochemicals, and research shows that acupuncture can calm this response. Acupuncture has also been shown to increase the release of endorphins, the body’s own ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which play a role in the regulation of stress responses such as pain, heart rate and blood pressure. These effects of acupuncture probably lie wholly or partly behind its ability to reduce anxiety.
The British Acupuncture Council has partnered with Anxiety UK, the country’s leading anxiety disorders charity, to launch a joint research project and increase awareness of how traditional acupuncture can help people with anxiety disorders.
Acupuncture for Stress
Taking stress firstly, I find it plays a role in quite a few conditions I see. It may have been a causal component in the development of a problem eg. chronic headaches which started during a particularly stressful year, or it may noticeably aggravate pre-existing conditions as diverse as back pain, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), psoriasis or depression. It helps if when you come, you are able to share as much as you can about the causes of your stress, whether it be work, caring for relatives, family tensions, lack of free time, or any other experience you are going through. I will be interested to learn how it is affecting you in all its manifestations eg. irritability, constantly upset by small things, poor sleep, digestive disturbances, headaches, raised blood pressure.
As usual, we will cover your health in the wider sense too, and take account of any other concerns or conditions. I will formulate a treatment plan, and together we will discuss some coping strategies appropriate to your circumstances. These may involve exercise, relaxation, delegation of some responsibilities etc, and we will monitor their success. My aim overall though, is that you shouldn’t just feel less stressed whilst you are having a course of treatment, but that you should actually carry away with you, new ways of living your life, which lead to a permanent change in the way you feel.
Acupuncture for Anxiety
Moving on to anxiety, you may well have identified particular situations which arouse it eg. knowing you are going to have to speak in a meeting at work. Anxiety, like stress, also has the capacity to affect sleep, and so this aspect of your life may need some help too. I shall ask all about how the anxiety began, and by combining this information with your answers to my questions about your general health, I can devise a treatment plan.
Sometimes this might include some dietary advice, emphasising particular foods to include in your daily menu. We may need to discuss any possible nutrient deficiencies, sleep, exercise, social life, alcohol intake, and drugs both prescribed and recreational. Diet and nutrient considerations may include B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, gut health/biome, and dietary protein.
Additionally, since our ears have many useful acupuncture points on them, I might if you wish, affix a tiny seed over an appropriate point. It will often go unnoticed by others, or be covered by your hair, but when you locate it with your finger and squeeze it against the ear, you may find it quite calming. I frequently give these to people who have a fear of flying, to aid them at the airport and on board the plane.
Anxiety is often a fairly long-term pattern, and can range from mild to severe. It might have gone away for several years, only to re-appear at a point in life when you are vulnerable, such as in the year or so following pregnancy and childbirth. On the whole though, I expect to have to treat for two to three months, on a weekly basis. An exception would be the fear of flying example above, where if you have got as far as already booking a trip, then a few treatments beforehand might suffice to give you a holiday, as opposed to an ordeal.
6 Simple Self-Help Measures
When you are stressed, it may also be helpful to stop and take stock. There are six simple steps we can take, which have been found to make us happier:
1) Connect Happy people have stronger social relationships. Invest a little time in friends, family and colleagues. Take a few moments to chat with the postman or the sales assistant in a shop you go to regularly.
2) Be Active Physical activity has a positive impact on stress, depression and anxiety. Take up some exercise: walk to the station, take a lunchtime stroll, join a dance class etc.
3) Be Curious Notice that there is beauty, interest and novelty all around. Look out for the lambs in the fields as you drive by. Look up at the hidden gems of architecture high above familiar streets.
4) Continue Learning Learn to speak a foreign language, play a musical instrument, or master a new hobby.
5) Give Look out for opportunities to give something to your fellow humans: you could express appreciation, do someone a favour, or even just give a smile.
6) Smiling improves our mood. It is an example of positive body language, which affects the brain and hence how we feel. Spend time with smiley people and you will naturally mirror their expressions.
A team led by Lund University, Sweden has shown that a course of acupuncture improves subjective well-being for women being treated for anorexia nervosa. A qualitative analysis was undertaken on interviews from 25 patients, median age 29, taking part in a residential treatment programme. The programme included structured eating, medication, supportive dialogue and restrictions on physical activity. Patients were also offered acupuncture twice a week, in addition to usual care, with additional sessions available on request. Participants took part in the study for between one and twenty-six weeks.
Acupuncture was appreciated by patients: they felt it relieved anxiety and somatic symptoms, benefited both body and mind, eased the struggle to get better, and helped them in all phases of their recovery. It was described as an attractive, personalised part of the programme, and a tool that made it possible for them to influence their own wellness. The authors say “Many participants described how acupuncture could help them relax and get into a pleasant mindful state where they could rest and be themselves…. ‘like getting a nice pause in your brain’. They could observe and process their thoughts, one by one, without provoking stress or a compulsion to act on them. Participants described how acupuncture taught them what it felt like to be relaxed in a natural way…. They experienced that they could concentrate better and focus on issues after acupuncture. The relaxation was described as a new, deep, experience, giving them an inner peace.”
They go on to point out that although patients were offered acupuncture to reduce anxiety and stress, they actually experienced positive somatic side effects including less pain and easing of constipation and other stomach-related complaints.
(Getting Well Is More Than Gaining Weight – Patients’ Experiences of a Treatment Program for Anorexia Nervosa Including Ear Acupuncture. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 15 January 2020.)
Researchers in Italy have examined the usefulness of acupuncture for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) following the central Italian earthquake of August 2016. A total of 41 patients were given four treatments over consecutive days. Both psychological and physical symptoms were reported by 68% of patients.
At baseline, 23 patients reported severe or extremely severe pain. After the third treatment, this dropped to four patients. With regard to psychological symptoms, 32 patients rated these as severe or extremely severe at baseline. After the third treatment, this dropped to 7 patients.
The researchers say this was an observational study with the goal of evaluating acupuncture in an emergency context. The results suggest that acupuncture could be a useful tool for reducing psychological symptoms related to earthquakes, but further research is required.
(An Observational Study on Acupuncture for Earthquake-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Experience of the Lombard Association of Medical Acupuncturists/Acupuncture in the World, in Amatrice, Central Italy. Medical Acupuncture, on-line 15 April 2019.))
A team at Narayana Dental College & Hospital in India, have found that acupressure can be successfully used to reduce dental anxiety in children. A total of 375 children, aged 8 to 12, who were scheduled for scaling and/or restorative procedures, were randomly assigned to one of three groups: acupressure, sham acupressure or control. The acupressure points chosen are traditionally used for calming, whilst the sham points are not known to have any such effect.
Significant differences were observed between the three groups, in terms of subjective anxiety scores, objective behaviour ratings, and pulse rates. The acupressure group displayed the lowest anxiety score based on all measures.
(Effectiveness of Acupressure on Dental Anxiety in Children. Pediatric Dentistry, 15 May 2018.)
Lavender has often been used as a calming agent for anxiety, and to help with the onset of sleep. By studying mice, a team at Kagoshima University, Japan, has now confirmed the identity of the relevant component of lavender oil and its mechanism of action. The anxiolytic (ie anxiety-reducing) chemical is one of the terpene alcohols in lavender, called linalool. Moreover, the researchers established for the first time that linalool must be smelt in order to produce its calming effect, as opposed to being absorbed in the lungs or taken up by the bloodstream.
The team say their findings may lead to the clinical application of linalool odour for anxiety disorders and to alleviate preoperative stress.
(Linalool Odor-Induced Anxiolytic Effects in Mice. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 23 October 2018.)