Living in “The New Normal”: Acupuncture for Stress, Anxiety, & Depression

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“The New Normal.” That seems to be everyone’s favorite catchphrase these days. And while it points to our collective need to normalize things, to face something scary and dangerous and figure out a way to accept it into our everyday, it also has a way of invalidating any kind of stress or anxiety that may be coming up because of this new reality. Implied in that tricky word “normal” is the idea that “This is the way things are now, so get used to it.” But it’s more important than ever, in fact, that we acknowledge how our bodies and minds are reacting to what’s going on in the world, and that we honor those reactions by tending to them. Because, as we all know, stuffing down worries and emotional pain—whether on a societal level or personally—only makes them stronger. Acupuncture is well known for its ability to ease stress, anxiety and depression. In conjunction with other practices, such as meditation, qi gong, and talk therapy, acupuncture is a safe, effective, and notably, side-effect-free practice that can help you stay in tune with yourself and provide life-saving relief from the stress of living right now.

It’s been known for centuries in Chinese medicine that acupuncture is an effective treatment, but Western medicine is coming to embrace the practice more and more as well, with numerous studies proving it effective and safe. It has been proven especially effective in pregnant women with major depressive disorder, a population for whom taking medication to treat this disorder can be dangerous. And it has been found to reduce both anxiety and depression as an adjunctive treatment with counseling and psychotherapy in women undergoing IVF as well as recovering from substance abuse—again, both populations for whom going the pharmacological route is potentially harmful. Psychology Today attributes these results to changes that acupuncture causes in the autonomic nervous system and the immune system, and cites a study that found acupuncture to lower the heart rate and provide a general sense of wellbeing in 36 mildly depressed or anxious adults.

Other studies have found that acupuncture can calm the stress release of neurochemicals from the hypothalamus, increase the flow of endorphins in the body, and stimulate the secretion of serotonin and norepinephrine, making these important neurotransmitters that are responsible for emotional regulation and response more available in your system—exactly what SSRIs and NDRIs, the most common antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, do as well. In fact, a study published in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture (specifically electroacupuncture—in which a mild electric current is transmitted through the needles) was actually more effective than Prozac in reducing symptoms of depression.

How does acupuncture work on mental health from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective?

In TCM, anxiety is understood as a result of imbalances in our qi/energy. Most commonly (but not solely), we tend to see the heart and kidney organ systems affected in cases of anxiety. The heart is the organ associated with the fire element in TCM. It also houses our shen/spirit. If there is too little or too much fire we can experience emotional distress and anxiety.

In TCM, there are so many patterns and combinations of imbalances among the organs that can lead to anxiety. A common one I see is too much fire or heat in the heart. This excess of heat will send the kidney, associated with the water element and with fear, into overdrive, trying to unsuccessfully contain that excess heat of the heart. But more broadly, any instance of mental distress—anxiety, stress, depression—can be thought of as a disturbance to the shen, our spirit, consciousness, embodiment of emotions and thoughts. Any kind of disturbance to the shen can make you feel a disconnection from who you truly are and can lead to or manifest simultaneously with blockages in the qi creating stagnation. This is why you will experience sluggishness, apathy, lack of motivation, but also anger and grief in these states: your qi—your vital life force—is being blocked from different organs and areas of your body and not able to fully move through your body and infuse it with life.

Acupuncture, in targeting specific points along your meridians, can help unblock the qi, connecting you back to your shen. Heidi Most, an associate professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health, beautifully sums up how acupuncture gets to work:

“Chinese medicine always treats the individual and not the disease. The beauty of Chinese medicine is that there are no set point formulas or herbal prescriptions…the treatment is really based on the individual. It’s like making a beautiful meal: the points and herbs work synergistically to create something that is larger than the individual ingredients.”

An acupuncturist, by taking a holistic view of your health and wellbeing, will be able to locate those distinct points on your body that will calm your spirit , ground you and help clear out negative emotions and stagnant qi, leaving you feeling clearer, brighter, with spirits lifted and like yourself again.

It is more clear than ever that there is no one-size-fits-all cure for what ails each of us. This virus, as well as the racial injustice that has been playing out in our country, affects each of us differently—even within demographics, within families, within partnerships. That is why acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are so suited to helping us in this moment: embedded in their very nature is an embrace of each person’s uniqueness and a willingness to meet each person where they are.