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.
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), and 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.
To promote Mental Health Awareness Week 2013, the British Acupuncture Council 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.
Taking stress firstly though, I find it actually plays a role in quite a few of the 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, 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.
Moving on to anxiety next, 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. 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 often give these to people who have a fear of flying, to aid them at the airport and on board the plane.
Anxiety is frequently a fairly long-term pattern in people I see, and it ranges 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.
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 pilot study undertaken in Germany, has shown that ear acupuncture can help to reduce pre-exam anxiety in medical students. Ten students were given a simple ear acupuncture treatment the day before their anatomy exams. The needles were of a special design such that they could be left in place, and only removed after the exam. Anxiety levels were found to have decreased by almost 20% after acupuncture. The authors comment that all of the students tolerated the needles well and stated they would wish to receive acupuncture again for exam anxiety in the future.
(Auricular acupuncture for pre-exam anxiety in medical students: a prospective observational pilot investigation. Acupuncture in Medicine, October 2015.)
A pilot study undertaken in Wales suggests that acupuncture may be a promising treatment for chronic anxiety which has been resistant to other interventions through their GP, such as CBT and medication. Forty patients were randomly allocated to one of two groups: one group received ten sessions of acupuncture for 10-12 weeks, whilst the other were held on a waiting list to act as a control. The waiting list group was then similarly given ten sessions of acupuncture. Both groups were followed up for ten weeks after treatment.
State anxiety (anxiety in response to specific situations) scores in the acupuncture group decreased from a mean 57.7 to 38.8, whilst in the waiting list group, the change was 61.5 to 60.6, a highly statistically significant difference. Trait anxiety (personality predisposition) scores showed similar changes. The control group exhibited similar improvements when they received acupuncture, and these improvements were maintained after ten weeks follow-up.
Qualitative comments by the authors of the paper, may be just as valuable in themselves: “Several participants obtained jobs, despite having been unemployed for several years, and some family members voluntarily came to the department specifically to report changes that had occurred. A further outcome not formally assessed, but generally reported by participants, was that those who suffered with insomnia or generalised disturbed sleep found they were sleeping better.”
(Randomised controlled trial on the use of acupuncture in adults with chronic, non-responding anxiety symptoms. Acupuncture in Medicine, online 16 January 2015.)
Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have concluded that at six month follow-up, patients with psychological distress, and treated with either acupuncture or integrative care (acupuncture alongside talking therapy), show more long-term benefit than those given conventional care. Patients were drawn from four GP practices across western Sweden, and comprised 120 adults aged 20 to 55. Primary diagnoses were: depression (30%), anxiety or panic disorders (20%), severe stress (20%), somatic symptoms/pain (20%) and sleep disorders (10%). Acupuncture was given once each week for eight weeks.
Both acupuncture and integrative care were more effective than conventional care, in reducing anxiety and depression whilst improving quality of life. The researchers say their results are in line with earlier findings suggesting the effectiveness of acupuncture for anxiety and depression.
(Six-month effects of integrative treatment, therapeutic acupuncture and conventional treatment in alleviating psychological distress in primary care patient – follow up from an open, pragmatic randomized controlled trial.
BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 30 June 2014.)
A systematic review of complementary medical treatments, carried out by researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in the USA, has shown acupuncture can alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They assessed 33 studies looking into the effects of various therapies on PTSD, and concluded there was good evidence for the usefulness of acupuncture, hypnotherapy, meditation and visualisation.
(Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: A Systematic Review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 27 March 2014, epub ahead of print.)