"It's the best relaxation, anti-anxiety drug I've ever had. It’s better than a Valium or Lorazapam or anything from the past." - Hank Ear Acupuncture: A Tool For Recovery,Yale School of Medicine, Dept of Psychiatry 2011
Acupuncture has a remarkable effect on stress. Even when clients come in for complaints not related to stress, such as low back pain, they always comment afterwards on how relaxed they feel. That’s because I almost always add one or two needles specifically to calm the nervous system. However, The effects are even more powerful when the whole acupuncture treatment is used specifically for stress. Those who are asking for help for stress - however that’s manifesting - feel noticeably better with acupuncture, and function better during the rest of the week.
What does stress look like?
Stress will look a little different person to person, and much depends on how long the person has suffered with stress and how anxious they are just as a baseline. A few of the symptoms I commonly see in clinic are below, in no specific order:
Fatigue, often severe, often worse in the morning
Depressed body function overall
Insomnia - trouble falling asleep, or waking and not being able to get back to sleep.
Vivid dreams, maybe nightmares
Tension headaches, sometimes migraines
Mental/Emotional disturbances - being short tempered, or constantly worried, living under fear, feeling irritable or desperate or depressed or hopeless.
Missed periods or prolonged bleeding
Asthma flare ups, Recurrence of allergies long gone
Digestive disorders including pain after eating, no appetite, constipation, diarrhea.
Skin rashes, sensitivity, acne
And then there’s musculoskeletal pain - tons of pain. Back pain, neck pain, hands, feet, jaw, widespread body aches, you name it.
What causes stress?
There are both negative and positive stressors.
Stress can be caused by hard things - loss of a loved one, losing a job, ending a relationship, toxic relationships. Some of us routinely feel overwhelmed by having too much to do and not enough time, others have seasonal or long-term periods when the financial stress increases.
Stress can also be caused by positive changes - a new job, the success you wanted, a new relationship, moving or buying a home, finishing the project or reaching a career milestone. Even though these things are good and most of us want them, it’s still extremely stimulating to your nervous system to have this kind of new input coming at you.
It is a rare exception when acute injuries and chronic pain do not bring stress with them - the pressure to perform, the worry about your health or long term use and quality of life, the endless questioning and worry about why and how to fix the problem are a rabbit hole we only realize we’re in once we’ve gone down it. Even if there is only, let's say, a mild degree of worry around something such as a sprained ankle, this is often enough to disrupt sleep, or give the impression that the injury is much worse than it actually is.
What kind of results do patients typically report?
Patients begin to feel better as the needles are being administered, sometimes after the very first needle the needle if they’ve had a lot of experience with acupuncture. During the ret period many drift off and relax deeply, about half fall asleep. Afterwards, they immediately realize and comment that they feel better, more relaxed. Some say that they feel a sense of at last “feeling well” after long periods of being distraught or anxious or worse.
Who comes for acupuncture when they’re stressed? Here are a few examples:
Sixty-five year-old male, 9-11 survivor who used to comes every August to help him through the trauma of September. The acupuncture made it possible for him to sleep and gave him a feeling of ‘wellbeing.’
45 year-old female, political mid-east journalist with moderate to severe PTSD. The acupuncture was a major part of helping her get through the week.
30 year-old female, corporate professional with high work stress and severe constipation - acupuncture allowed her to move her bowels for 2-3 days afterwards.
35 year-old female, professional dancer, going through a divorce, acupuncture allowed her to focus and feel better, also helped with a very stubborn and acute injury.
Just this week I treated a woman in her hospital bed, so afraid of dying or being crippled that she couldn’t eat for the stomach pain it caused her, yet she knew in order to heal she had to eat. This woman’s physical pain went from an 8/10 to a 4/10 during the acupuncture, and she now feels significantly less afraid to eat.
Skilled acupuncturists can get immediate results - but the best results take multiple sessions, once a week, for several weeks. This is because we’re training your nervous system to react differently than it has in the past to stress. And for most adults, we’ve learned those reactions very deeply, very thoroughly. But once that process is well underway, you can actually learn to react differently than you have in the past. I always recommend meditation apps and regular therapy to my patients who are asking for help with stress - it helps to do your homework if you want things to change.
What does the research say?
Acupuncture in reducing stress and complaints resulting from stress has been the subject of Western research for decades now, funded by the WHO, universities, even our government under (ahem) previous presidents.
Researchers at Yale have studied acupuncture to reduce anxiety in patients prior to surgery. The positive effects of acupuncture on blood pressure in people under stress are now common knowledge. Children are given adhesive pressure pellets to stimulate acupuncture points before surgery - anesthesiologists have observed this noticeably lowers the child’s anxiety level which also makes the ordeal easier for their families.
The US military has been using acupuncture to treat PTSD in veterans for over a decade now. There are several research studies at the bottom of this article, some showing acupuncture significantly decreased in PTSD above usual care alone.
The US and NATO military are also training a handful of its doctors in battlefield acupuncture, protocols that can be quickly administered after injury as another resource for pain relief, the concept being that if you have to move a severely injured soldier quickly, the use of acupuncture can reduce pain and panic, resulting in a less medicated, more alert and mobile soldier.
The release of endorphins and opioids in the brain during acupuncture were documented in the 1970’s. It’s also clear that acupuncture modulates brain activity. Both the chemical and electrical changes during acupuncture amount to higher thresholds to pain. Acupuncture also regulates the activity of the lower brain centers which control breathing, heart-rate, emotional response, motor control, and sensory response. That's why acupuncture has been used in Lincoln hospital in the Bronx for the 70’s in the treatment of heroin addiction, and why acupuncturist are organizing now to help with the current opioid crisis - stress is also a major factor in healing from addiction.
Could you be experiencing stress?
50 – 58% of Americans report being stressed or very stressed, including 38% of children – since 2005. (APA.org)
The CDC found that 43% of Americans experience incredible stress as children, reporting at least 2 or more such adverse childhood experiences (e.g., substance abuse or mental illness in home, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, family member in prison, witnessing domestic violence). (CDC, 2009)
Almost half of US men and women (48%) have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2011).
More than 1 in 3 individuals report high levels of anxiety which impair functioning, well-being and health (Kessler et al., 2005).
Ear Acupuncture: A Tool For Recovery,Yale School of Medicine, Dept of Psychiatry 2011
Efficacy of Acupuncture in Reducing Perioperative Anxiety, Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4165564/
WebMD: Acupuncture Can Lower High Blood Pressure https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/news/20010611/acupuncture-can-lower-high-blood-pressure#1
University of California - Irvine. "Acupressure Calms Children Before Surgery." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 October 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081001130006.htm
Acupuncture For Military PTSD Found Effective https://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1410-acupuncture-for-combat-ptsd-found-effective
RAND Corporation online 2017: Needle Acupuncture in PTSD https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1433.html
RAND Corporation online 2015: Acupuncture for Major Depressive Disorders
U.S. Military Approves Use of Acupuncture for Pain http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/266173
Acupuncture decrease pain sufficiently to reduce prescription opiod use https://journals.lww.com/anesthesia-analgesia/Abstract/2017/12000/Using_Integrative_Medicine_in_Pain_Management___An.38.aspx
Acupuncture releases endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain, modulates brain activity and attenuates pain response: https://journals.lww.com/anesthesia-analgesia/Fulltext/2008/02000/Acupuncture_Analgesia__I__The_Scientific_Basis.38.aspx
Acupcture increase Nitric Oxide production to relieve pain https://journals.lww.com/anesthesia-analgesia/Fulltext/2007/02000/Acupuncture_Enhances_Generation_of_Nitric_Oxide.14.aspx