Acupuncture for anxiety

Anxiety is an immensely complex condition with many different psychological and behavioural facets. Unfortunately it is also an affliction that affects many people, and while many advances have been made in the field of addressing and treating anxiety disorders, success can vary immensely. Because of this, different approaches to treating anxiety warrant further investigation to find and establish more effective methods of treatment. In this article we look at what anxiety is, and how acupuncture might be able to offer treatment.

What is anxiety?

‘Anxiety’ is a fairy broad term that encompasses everything from a mild, passing feeling of worry to a complex psychological and behavioural disorder with far reaching and life changing consequences.

In its simplest form anxiety is something everyone experiences before a big event like an exam or competition, or in response to a cause for worry or concern. Anxiety on this level rarely needs any treatment as it is passing and usually doesn’t impact a person’s life more than worrying would.

More serious anxiety issues with strong psychological and behavioural components come under the blanket term ‘anxiety disorder’. These are usually psychiatric problems that typically involve excessive and unhealthy worrying and nervousness. In many cases, anxiety disorders involve fears about future uncertainties that can be debilitating. A psychiatric anxiety disorder will typically have an effect on a person’s ability to function on a day to day basis, and on their relationships with other people and ability to make decisions.

Anxiety disorders can be caused by a number of factors, and in most cases it is a combination of factors working together which cause or contribute to the condition. One of these is a genetic predisposition to anxiety, which means that there is a familial/heritable component to the disease. Not everyone who suffers from an anxiety disorder has a family history of anxiety, but in many cases this is a factor. Other causes can be trauma or complicating psychiatric issues.

Anxiety disorders are broadly split into categories which reflect both the nature of the disorder and its cause, some examples include:

Phobic disorders: Phobic disorders usually involve a lasting fear of either a particular situation or object, which causes great anxiety and changes a person’s behaviour to the point where they are taking irrational measures to avoid the object of their fear.

Generalized anxiety disorders: Is a condition which involves a broadly anxious approach to day to day issues. This approach is disproportionate to what are otherwise normal, day to day events, and causes a sufferer a great deal of distress.

Panic disorders: People suffering from panic disorders experience panic attacks, brief periods of intense fear and anxiety which is usually accompanied by difficulties in breathing nausea, and trembling. Panic attacks can be debilitating in some cases, and in others are fairly short lived during a time of particular stress.

Anxiety can present in a lot of ways, and physical symptoms can include nausea, headaches, generalised tiredness (fatigue), excessive sweating, agitation, insomnia, and many other physical signs of distress.

How is anxiety usually managed?

There are a number of different approaches that can be employed to treat anxiety. Some anti-anxiety medications can provide short-term relief to anxiety problems, particularly those that are a consequence of particular events.

For longer term and more severe anxiety issues psychological therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is needed. This is a complex approach that involves a specialist examining the root causes of the anxiety problem, and then helping a person modify their thinking and behaviours over time to overcome the anxiety disorder.

A number of non-medical approaches have been employed to treat anxiety disorders, and many report success. Exercise, yoga, and lifestyle changes (like reducing caffeine intake) have proven effective methods of managing stress.

Acupuncture has been reported as a management method for anxiety, and in the following section, we will look at whether acupuncture can be used to effectively treat anxiety issues.

Can acupuncture treat anxiety?

Acupuncture is thought to offer some relief from anxiety, however there is little understanding of a mechanism by which this would work. According to traditional Chinese belief, acupuncture works to remedy the flow of Qi, an energy essential to good health. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of Qi, there is also no evidence to clearly indicate a physiological mechanism by which acupuncture works to treat anxiety.

It is argued by some that acupuncture works to relieve anxiety by relaxing muscles and stimulating the release of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are natural but potent substances which can relieve pain, and in some cases, improve mood. However it is important to point out that thus far there is no strong evidence to support these theories.

The results of an acupuncture treatment for anxiety can vary, but the option does provide people suffering from the condition with another avenue of treatment. In the hands of a trained acupuncturist, the therapy is extremely safe and can only offer benefits if it does work to help manage anxiety.

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