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  • Emma K. Dweck, L.Ac.

Calming an Anxious Spirit with Acupuncture

I once had a therapist tell me “everyone has anxiety.” Although (in my humble opinion) this was a terrible thing for a professional to say to an anxious young woman, in some ways she was right. We currently live in a world that would make any sane person worried and afraid. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% or 40 Million American Adults currently experience an anxiety disorder, and these are only reported cases. In the past 8-10 months, patients experiencing mild to severe anxiety in my practice have increased rather dramatically. This is a disturbing trend and speaks to a shift in our cultural landscape.

Anxiety is related to sleep problems, digestive issues, substance abuse, and many other health challenges with long term consequences. The good news is, acupuncture is fantastic at treating anxiety. I often say anxiety is one of my favorite things to treat because it responds so well to acupuncture.

From the Chinese Medicine perspective, most peoples’ anxiety falls into one or more of three basic categories. For the purposes of this post I will call them “heart anxiety,” “kidney anxiety” and “spleen anxiety.” Understanding the root cause is the first step in formulating a treatment plan, helping my patients understand their own imbalance, and ultimately treating the issue.

Heart anxiety originates from an imbalance in the fire element. Symptoms can include heart palpitations or a strong feeling of your heart beating, sweaty or hot head, hands, and chest, dizziness, and feeling generally ungrounded—like your energy is moving up and out of you in an unpleasant way. A typical panic attack is an acute manifestation of this type of anxiety. The mania associated with bipolar disorder is also a type of Heart imbalance.

Kidney anxiety is a deeper feeling that might feel like your whole body is electric or tense. Those experiencing this can feel frozen in dread. Phobias and a hyper-vigilant feeling of “looking for trouble” are the easiest way to understand anxiety rooted in a kidney imbalance. Although all anxiety could be said to be rooted in fear, this is a deep, existential fear. In some ways Kidney Anxiety can feel like a fear of being alive. Some physical symptoms related to this type of anxiety can include sore/weak low back and hips, chronic fatigue, tinnitus, and an aversion to cold.

Spleen anxiety is rooted in worry and rumination. Patients with this type of anxiety often have a sensation of “butterflies” in their stomach, digestive issues, headaches, nausea, obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. As opposed to the kidney- fear described above, those with Spleen Anxiety worry obsessively about one thing. Obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior, and eating disorders are also related to Spleen Anxiety.

If you or anyone you know is having severe anxiety or panic attacks, it’s important to see a doctor or mental health professional. Acupuncture often works very well in conjunction with psychotherapy.

There are some things you can do on your own to cope with mild to moderate anxiety. These include:

Lifestyle adjustments:

  • Limit Screen time, especially before bed

  • Take time to eat meals free from distractions such as reading, TV, or other screens (this is especially helpful with Spleen Anxiety symptoms)

  • Find a type of meditation that works for you. This could be walking meditation, sitting meditation, or something less traditional. For me, insight or Vipassana meditation has been the most helpful

  • If you have digestive symptoms related to Spleen anxiety, avoid raw and cold foods, sugar, and dairy

  • If you experience insomnia, keep the bedroom cool, dark, and free from electronics

  • Limit caffeine, chocolate, sugar and other stimulants

  • Limit exposure to the news if it tends to trigger worry or fear

  • Exercise, especially, earlier in the day, can be extremely helpful. Find something you enjoy doing!

Herbs and Supplements that may be helpful*

  • Milky Oat Tops, Lavender, lemon balm, chamomile and kava kava all have calming properties

  • Valerian (for sleep specifically)

  • Magnesium

  • Hawthorne can be helpful with Heart Anxiety

  • Adaptogen herbs, including Rhodiola Rosea, Ashwaghanda, Holy Basil (Tulsi), and Eleuthro, can be helpful if there is related fatigue and depression

And you may also want to get professional help:

  • As already mentioned, acupuncture is a great form of treatment for anxiety, using the principles of Chinese medicine to help treat the underlying cause.

  • Talk therapy is helpful for some (though not everyone). When looking for a psychotherapist, make sure you interview a few and don’t just go with the first person who has availability. All therapists are not created equal (the same goes for acupuncturists). Ask them how they work and find someone you connect with!

  • EMDR is a technique that some professionals use, which is particularly helpful for those with anxiety related to trauma or experiencing PTSD

  • Hypnotherapy can also be helpful for those experiencing insomnia , exhibiting compulsive behaviors or struggling with addiction

One thing I love about Chinese Medicine is that everything has a root cause. Because we see things through this framework, an acupuncturist will never tell you “it’s all in your head” or that we “don’t know what’s wrong with you.” This can be extremely comforting to patients who are experiencing anxiety and related physical symptoms.

The last thing I will say is: be kind to yourself if you are experiencing anxiety. Often we spend an enormous amount of energy getting down on ourselves for feeling anxious. This helps no one, and usually makes the problem worse. And on that note, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

*If you are on medications of any kind, or have a medical condition, consult a healthcare practitioner before taking herbs or supplements

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