In Western medicine, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a psychological and physiological state characterised by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events with no obvious reasons for worry. GAD symptoms always tend to expect disaster and continuously worry about health, money, family, work, or school. With worry out of proportion or unrealistic, daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, the Anxiety dominates the person’s thinking and can interfere with daily functioning.
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Muscle tension, trembling.
- Feeling restless or on edge.
- Fast heartbeat, tachycardia
- Fast or troubled breathing
- Stomach upset
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
It has been estimated that anxiety disorders affect between 5 and 7% of the general population. Up to 29% of people will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least once during their lifetime. Anxiety disorders affect both men and women across the world, but the disease's burden is greater in women than in men.
At one time or another, all of us experience stress. These feelings are a healthy response to events in our lives that may feel beyond our control. When we are healthy, and the stress is short-lived, we are usually able to recover without too much wear and tear to our overall health. However, when the stress is extreme or lasts a long time, our emotional health and ultimately, our physical health begin to suffer.
Acupuncture and anxiety
Recently, I have been getting a lot of enquiries asking me if acupuncture can treat Anxiety disorders. The answer is always yes. I have treated many patients suffering from Anxiety of varying degrees; acupuncture is a powerful treatment for depression and anxiety.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views Anxiety not simply as a brain dysfunction, but more as the dysfunction of an inner organ.
In traditional Chinese medicine, there exist zang and fu organs. These are not simply anatomical substances, but more importantly, represent the generalization of the physiology and pathology of certain systems of the human body.
There are five zang and six fu organs. The five zang organs are the heart (including the pericardium), lung, spleen, liver, and kidney. The six fu organs are the gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and the sanjiao (three areas of the body cavity). The different features of their functions classify zang and fu. The five Zang organs mainly manufacture and store essence: qi, blood, and body fluid.
In TCM theory, each of the Zang Organs plays a role in the emotions. Emotions and organ’s health are intimately connected. Zang organs can develop imbalances and dysfunctions due to dietary, environmental, lifestyle, and hereditary factors.
Worry, dwelling, or focusing too much on a particular topic, excessive mental work is symptoms of a Spleen disorder. Lack of enthusiasm and Vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, despair are symptoms of a Heart disorder. Liver emotional symptoms are anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, and “flying off the handle.” With Lung disorders, we see more grief, sadness, and detachment. And finally, with an imbalance of the Kidneys, a person may be fearful, insecure, aloof, isolated, and have weak willpower. While the Heart Zang is said to store the Shen or spirit, the Shen is disturbed in all Anxiety cases. While a generalized Anxiety disorder always affects the Shen, either primarily or secondarily, calming and harmonizing, the Shen will be the fundamental treatment. In Anxiety, the most common injured organs are the Spleen and Heart. When there is a disturbance in one or more of these Zang organs from any cause, an imbalanced emotional state can happen.
Acupuncture seeks to address body, mind, emotions and spirit. The goal is to create harmony within ourselves and between ourselves and the world. This imbalance can take many forms and is ultimately discerned by the acupuncturist through an ongoing evaluation process which encompasses observation of posture, gait, demeanour, skin tone, the brightness of eyes, voice, smell, tongue and pulse diagnosis, palpation and asking about symptoms and history.
Our TCM diagnosis describes a pattern of harmony or disharmony. This involves assessing the condition of spirit, essence, energy, blood, fluids, organs and channels.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes health is dependent on Qi (energy) – which, when in good health, moves in a smooth and balanced way through a chain of fourteen main channels (Jing Luo in Chinese) mapped out throughout the body. Stress, anger, or any intense emotion acts like a traffic jam, blocking the body's free flow of energy. For example, many people who are very stressed out complain of upper back, shoulder and neck pain. This is because stress is causing tension in those areas, blocking the free flow of energy, causing pain, tightness, and often leading to headaches.
By inserting needles into the acupuncture points, which lie at specific predetermined anatomical locations on these channels, we stimulate body’s energy (Qi) to start the healing process and assist it to restore its natural balance. Acupuncture points can help energy flow smoothly, and alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety and the stress and anxiety itself.
Positive changes in lifestyle and exercise are also precious to the anxiety sufferer. Activities such as Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga are excellent forms of mind-body exercise that can improve the ability to control both anxiety and depression. Diet also plays an important part in the treatment of anxiety. For example, too much-refined sugars can cause wild fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can significantly affect one’s mood and mental health. They also deplete B vitamins from the body, which can affect the nervous system. Excessive amounts of caffeine can create “toxic heat” in the liver, causing a rise in anger and anxiety. As an adrenal stimulant, caffeine can ultimately lead to adrenal exhaustion and depression. Substituting refined sugar and caffeine with low glycemic foods and beverages can result in reduced anxiety. Practising these changes in conjunction with regular acupuncture treatments will provide the foundation for a positive change and medication-free life for the anxiety sufferer. TCM treatments for anxiety and depression are unique for each patient, as every person has a unique constitution and set of imbalances. As a patient’s symptoms and issues adjust, a practitioner will likely change their treatments accordingly.
From a Western viewpoint, acupuncture works to alleviate stress by releasing natural pain-killing chemicals in the brain, called endorphins. Besides, acupuncture improves blood circulation throughout the body, which oxygenates the tissues and cycles out cortisol and other waste chemicals. The calming nature of acupuncture also decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles.
Acupuncture and TCM Vs Western Medical prescription drug therapies
Western medicine offers many options in the treatment of anxiety in the form of prescription medication. Unfortunately, unlike acupuncture, these come with many undesirable side effects.
Benzodiazepines-Alprazolam (Xanax), Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan) A group of drugs that help reduce anxiety and have sedating effects. They work quickly, but they can be habit-forming and are usually prescribed for short-term use. They may cause drowsiness, constipation, or nausea.
Buspirone (BuSpar)- An anti-anxiety drug that does not seem to cause drowsiness or dependence. However, you must take it for 2 weeks before feeling any effect. Side effects can include insomnia, nervousness, light-headedness, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and headaches.
Antidepressants- Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Escitalopram (Lexapro), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Venlafaxine (Effexor) A group of drugs that act on the same brain chemicals believed to be involved in anxiety.
Acupuncture in the treatment of anxiety has many excellences. In the hands of a trained, registered practitioner, it is completely safe and free of side effects. It is immediate in the result. While not every acupuncture session provides complete relief right away, as soon as you leave the acupuncturist (and in some cases the next morning), much of your anxiety should be diminished. Compare this to long-term treatments that generally require you to work on your anxiety a little at a time over a long period of time. For those with severe anxiety, that can be advantageous. It resolves the root issue of the anxiety alleviating all of the various symptoms. It does not interfere with other medications or treatments. It is suitable for all ages and states of health and perfectly safe during pregnancy.
Acupuncture treatment is tailor-made to the patient. This means that rather than looking simply at “anxiety” and inserting “anxiety points”, it looks at how anxiety affects the individual specifically, what signs and symptoms are present for this individual at different times throughout their condition and treats accordingly leading to an anxiety-free future.