Stress & Anxiety
For many Americans, stress and anxiety are an all too familiar part of life. The recent disruptions to our relationships, work, school, and economy from the COVID 19 pandemic are having profound consequences on how we respond to stress physically and emotionally. Stress is harmful to our bodies. Long-term or excessive stress can lead to hormonal imbalance, increased blood pressure, sleep issues, weight gain, digestive issues, dermatological problems, body aches and pain, as well as substance abuse.
The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to disharmony in the body is to identify the core imbalances in the channels and primary organs and recenter them, leading to lasting improvements. Our emotions are heavily tied to the health and coexistence of our organs. For example, our liver is paired with anger, the spleen with worry, the kidneys with fear, and so on. When we exhibit signs of emotional distress, a licensed acupuncturist may look to the health of the organs which pair with our disharmonious emotional state. They do this by asking questions, observing the patient’s tongue, checking the quality of their pulse, and so on. From there, licensed acupuncturists are able to create personalized treatment plans based on the patient’s needs, including acupuncture, herbal formulas, and lifestyle advice.
Benefits of Acupuncture
In TCM, stress and anxiety often lead to stagnation in the channels. As the stress increases in severity and duration, we start to feel like an overblown balloon or a pressure cooker that is about to burst. Acupuncture can help relieve the pressure and relax the body. Acupuncture has been scientifically proven to move patients from a sympathetic state to parasympathetic, meaning the treatment shuts off the “fight or flight” response1. Specific acupuncture points are proven to aid in regulating our homo-cysteine levels which naturally increase with stress and anxiety. When we regulate homo-cysteine, this releases a cascade of “happiness chemicals” including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and nor-epinephrine. Stress can also cause an already tense muscle to further tighten up and spasm.
Over time, this can exacerbate a preexisting musculoskeletal problem. Acupuncture can increase blood circulation to the area and stimulate nerve responses, changing how we respond to pain. As an added bonus, an acupuncture needle inserted anywhere in the body can affect the whole body, causing relaxation everywhere. Acupuncture treatments can also decrease cravings, withdrawal symptoms, addictive behavior, and poor sleep quality; all of which are issues associated with anxiety and stress. Additionally, studies show that acupuncture can help reduce panic attacks and PTSD symptoms2. While acupuncture is the most commonly used treatment option in TCM, a licensed acupuncturist may also provide a variety of other healing methods to cater to the patient’s specific case, such as Chinese herbs, nutritional therapy, and movement therapy.
Herbal Formulas & Treatments
Chinese herbal medicine offers a myriad of options for stress relief as everyone experiences stress differently. For instance, while one person’s stress can be expressed with heart palpitations and stomach pains, someone else may need to do a deep clean of their kitchen, while yet another person may present with melancholy and insomnia. Chinese herbal medicine’s pharmacopeia not only treats individual symptoms but also the root cause of their ailments. While acupuncture can help relieve the pressure, Chinese herbs can help take the edge off for those who need some help but are not so anxious that they require biomedical pharmaceutical interventions.
One of the most frequently used formulas for anxiety is a combination of licorice root, wheat husk, and jujube (Chinese red dates). Within this formula, the licorice works to boost your energy and help with digestive issues. The wheat husk anchors and grounds the mind. While the jujube soothes irritability. This formula can help with mood swings, irritability and anxiety. The gentle nature and sweet tasting herbs of this formula feel like a friend giving you a hug.
Another commonly used classical formula in Chinese Medicine is what is known as the Free and Easy Wanderer. The formula consists of bupleurum, dong quai, white peony root, white atractylodes, poria, mint, ginger root, and licorice root. While this formulation can be used to treat many different symptoms from digestive disorders to premenstrual cramps, it shines when it comes to relieving stress. The herbs in this formula work together to loosen the feeling of constraint, fatigue, and digestive problems that can be associated with anxiety.
Meditation & Practiced Mindfulness
A regular meditation practice can help quiet the mind. For those of us who have trouble sitting still, a mindfulness meditation practice can be a good way to ease into the process. To be mindful is to bring awareness to what your body is experiencing through your senses. It also checks into your state of mind by being aware of your emotions. Mindfulness meditation trains the brain to pause and breathe rather than immediately react to a negative stimulus. To get started, search YouTube for guided mindfulness meditations.
Recovery & Appointments
Length of healing time is dependent on the severity of a patient’s case and how consistent they are with treatment. While some patients may feel relief in just a few weeks, others may take several months to feel like themselves again. A typical treatment schedule with an acupuncturist may start with one to two sessions a week, and taper as the patient’s symptoms improve.
If you’re experiencing stress and anxiety, consider talking to your primary healthcare provider about referring you to a licensed acupuncturist for treatment. If you are local to New York City, Chicago, or San Diego, contact a Pacific College clinic to schedule treatment with our highly skilled clinicians and interns.
This article was written and provided by Dr. Leng Tang-Ritchie, faculty at Pacific College of Health and Science
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