Chinese Medicine as a Treatment for Anxiety
Every spiritual teacher encourages us to “be present” and to “live in the moment.” This is sage advice, as now is the only moment any of us is alive. We aren’t living in the future, we aren’t alive in the past—we are alive at this very moment. As a friend and psychoanalyst so eloquently stated, “Anxiety is fears from our past, projected into the future, haunting us now.” Anxiety truly interferes with our ability to fully thrive and be present in the moment of now.
Anxiety is an extension of fear, and everyone experiences these to some degree. A little bit of fear can even be healthy; it keeps us alive by avoiding dangerous situations and can be a powerful motivator to take action. But when anxiety and fear begin to interfere with our lives, they become pathological. When worry, uneasiness and apprehension interfere with sleep, paralyze productivity, erode social interaction and undermine our health, a clinician would make the diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
At this point (or ideally before things get this bad), we should seek help to manage anxiety. Anxiety can manifest as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, specific phobias, separation anxiety, panic attacks, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, or nearly 20 percent of the population, annually. It is well-documented that women are more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder in their lifespan. Anxiety is also closely associated with depression, and the two often present simultaneously. Persistent anxiety is also linked to using vices such as nicotine, alcohol and drugs as maladaptive coping devices, and these carry additional risks to health.
There are a variety of strategies that effectively reduce anxiety. Interventions ranging from prescription medications, psychotherapy, botanical supplements, meditation, yoga, tai chi, exercise and nutrition can all help to quiet the mental apprehension of anxiety. Chinese medicine also offers treatments for anxiety—an effective combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine.
A recent article published in the medical journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice reviewed numerous research studies investigating acupuncture for anxiety, and concluded there is “scientific evidence encouraging acupuncture therapy to treat anxiety disorders as it yields effective outcomes, with fewer side effects than conventional treatment”. Furthermore, they found acupuncture enhanced the effectiveness of prescription anxiety medications and mitigated their side-effects.
Anxiety produces specific physiological changes in the body. In addition to the apprehensive thoughts, one might experience elevated heart rate, a spike in blood pressure, palpitations, insomnia, headaches, spontaneous sweating, digestive problems, musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, dizziness, tremors, hyperventilation and shortness of breath. In its most extreme form, the symptoms of a panic attack can resemble a heart attack. In fact, according to a 2016 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, only 5.5 percent of emergency room visits for chest pain are “life threatening.” The other 94.5 percent are primarily due to panic attacks and muscle strain.
In Chinese medicine, there are dozens of syndromes that can generate symptoms of anxiety. A skilled acupuncturist will look at numerous signs and symptoms from all physiological systems in the body, examine nuances of thought patterns and mood and recognize a pattern of disharmony that is causing the anxiety. Appropriate acupuncture and herbal protocols are chosen to correct this pattern, relieving both the psychological and physical symptoms, bringing balance to the mind and the body.
An overactive sympathetic nervous system, the sustained “fight or flight” response, is associated with chronic anxiety. Most of the physical symptoms of anxiety are associated with an elevated sympathetic nervous state. Numerous studies have shown acupuncture can correct this by inducing the parasympathetic nervous state: “rest and digest”. The parasympathetic state allows the body and mind to relax and heal.
Acupuncture and herbs are often sufficient to treat mild cases of anxiety. However, for severe cases, a multifaceted approach may be recommended which also includes psychotherapy, meditation, exercise and changes to lifestyle habits—whatever seems to be the best blend and fit for the individual.
One interesting success story is a teenager who was suffering from anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. He would often have to stay home from school when the panic became severe. After just the first session, he was sleeping soundly, his energy was improved and his anxiety was less severe. After his second (and final) session, he has not had to skip school due to his anxiety and he has remained stable. He now only takes an herbal remedy recommended on the first visit.
While most cases do not respond this quickly, it’s a good example of how an accurate diagnosis and intervention with Chinese medicine can have profound effects for those dealing with anxiety.
Nathan Anderson, L.Ac. is a clinician at Catalina Acupuncture and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine. He has been a professor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine for over 10 years. Connect at 520-999-0080, Nathan@CatalinaAcupunctureTucson.com or CatalinaAcupunctureTucson.com. See ad, page 19.