People who’ve tried it say the anti-anxiety effects, without drugs, become noticeable almost instantly.
Animal and human studies suggest that the beneficial effects of acupuncture on health, including mental and emotional functioning, are due to multiple functions within the body. Treatment can lead to changes in neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation, such as serotonin, modulation of the autonomic nervous system, and changes in immune function. Sham-controlled studies disprove the assertion of some researchers who have argued that the placebo effect plays a significant role in clinical response to acupuncture.
There are a variety of reasons people experience anxiety or anxiety attacks as well as a variety of approaches to dealing and managing them. Acupuncturists may prescribe herbal formulations to support the acupuncture treatment and increase the effectiveness as well as teaching you things like meditation, breathing techniques as well as diet and lifestyle modifications that may be helpful in dealing with your particular reason for having the anxiety.
Acupuncture and acupressure are widely used to treat anxiety in both Asia and Western countries. Extensive case reports from the Chinese medical literature suggest that different acupuncture protocols reduce the severity of generalized anxiety and panic attacks (Lake & Flaws 2001).
How acupuncture for anxiety works
If you go for an acupuncture treatment, you’ll give a thorough medical history to your practitioner. Then, you’ll relax on a comfortable table, face up or down, while very fine needles—about the width of a hair—are carefully inserted under the surface of your skin. When done right, they shouldn’t hurt.
But the needles don’t just go in random places along your anatomy. They need to be inserted into very specific locations based on your physical or mental symptoms. Points for anxiety may include your breastbone, between your eyebrows, or the insides of your wrists.
The reason for these placements? According to Chinese medicine, energy, or “qi,” flows up and down pathways in the body. “Sometimes the energy is blocked, deficient, excessive, or unbalanced. This puts the body out of balance and in turn causes illness,” Elizabeth Trattner, a board-certified doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine who practices in Miami Beach, Florida, tells Health. “Acupuncture restores homeostasis and encourages healing.”
As a part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture uses a “whole system” approach to health. “We don’t separate the physical and mental aspects [of a patient], as they’re both intimately tied together,” Trattner explains.
Here’s an example. Tell your acupuncturist you’re feeling anxious and also waking up sweaty in the middle of the night, and she won’t think you’re complaining about two totally different issues. You just described symptoms of one of the most common explanations for anxiety in Chinese medicine: “yin deficiency.”
If that sounds too far-out there for you, there is a more Western answer for how acupuncture can work its magic. “Acupuncture eases anxiety by regulating the nervous system, specifically by bringing the branches of the autonomic nervous system back into balance,” Ashley Flores, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago who sees many women for anxiety, especially anxiety that has to do with fertility and pregnancy, tells Health.
When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system—the one that controls your “fight or flight” system—takes over, Flores explains, whereas your parasympathetic (“rest and digest” system) is stifled. This explains why your heart hammers in your chest and you can feel short of breath as anxiety takes hold in you.
“Acupuncture treatment helps shift the body back into a relaxed state where the sympathetic system is more balanced and no longer dominating,” says Flores.
It’s important that your acupuncturist listens to your complete medical history to determine the root problem of why you may be experiencing anxiety or panic attacks. It may take a few changes in the herbal formulation and the number of acupuncture treatments to experience improvement.
What the science says
In a small double-blind sham-controlled study, 36 mildly depressed or anxious patients were randomized to either an acupuncture protocol traditionally used by Chinese medical practitioners to treat anxiety or to a sham acupuncture protocol (i.e. acupuncture points believed to have no beneficial effects). All patients received three treatments. Heart rate variability (HRV) and mean heart rate were measured at 5 and 15 minutes following treatment. Resting heart rate was significantly lower in the treatment group but not in the sham group, and changes in HRV measures suggested that acupuncture may have changed autonomic activity resulting in a reduction of overall anxiety. The significance of these findings is limited by the absence of measures of baseline anxiety before and after treatment.
In another double-blind study, 55 adults who had not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were randomized to either a sham acupuncture point or a bilateral auricular (involving points on the ears) acupuncture protocol called the “shenmen” point. That protocol is believed to be effective against anxiety. In all subjects, acupuncture needles remained in place for 48 hours. The “relaxation” group was significantly less anxious at 30 minutes, 24 hours, and 48 hours compared to the other two groups, however, there were no significant inter-group differences in blood pressure, heart rate, or electrodermal activity (Wang 2001).
Rosa N. Schnyer, a clinical assistant professor of nursing at The University of Texas at Austin who researches acupuncture in the treatment of depression, says that several studies done on both animals and humans show that “acupuncture needling has demonstrable physiological effects on and may modify the neural functioning believed to be implicated in anxiety.”
Think the placebo effect is responsible? Brain scans show that acupuncture normalizes the signals that reach your limbic system, which controls your body’s “fight or flight” response. Results from several clinical trials, though considered to be preliminary findings, also show that acupuncture can be an effective way to manage anxiety.
A recently published systematic review (Amorim 2018) compared findings of studies on traditional (body) acupuncture, ear acupuncture (ariculotherapy), and electro-therapy in the treatment of anxiety. Some studies included in the review reported that acupuncture enhances response to prescription anti-anxiety medications and may also reduce medication side effects. The authors found good evidence that different styles of acupuncture reduce symptoms of anxiety in general, and recommended additional sham-controlled studies to help determine whether certain protocols are more beneficial than others.
Should you treat your anxiety with acupuncture?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a division of the NIH), acupuncture is relatively risk-free, so long as you go to an accredited practitioner who uses sterile needles. (Single-use disposable needles are the industry standard.) And unlike some medications for anxiety—like antidepressants, which can take weeks to fully kick in—the effects of acupuncture are sometimes felt immediately.
For some women, a treatment may be all it takes, or a series of regular visits can get to the root cause of anxiety and help manage it. Often, a practicioner will detect a swift change in the client’s breathing and pulse rate. The patient may notice that their muscles feel looser, a headache goes away, or that their eyes start to water—all signs of the body shifting out of sympathetic dominance.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, acupuncture may be worth a try.