How Acupuncture Can Help You Manage Anxiety

Acupuncture for anxiety

Fast Facts

Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine

It can help reduce anxiety by regulating the nervous system

Specific acupuncture points for anxiety include areas on the wrists, feet, and between the eyebrows.

When you’re stressed, the idea of multiple needles piercing your skin might not sound appealing. However, traditional Chinese medicine has used acupuncture for thousands of years to alleviate pain and treat various medical conditions.

Does Acupuncture Work for Anxiety?

Yes, it does. “Acupuncture eases anxiety by regulating the nervous system, specifically by bringing the branches of the autonomic nervous system back into balance,” says Ashley Flores, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago. “Acupuncture treatment helps shift the body back into a relaxed state where the sympathetic system is more balanced and no longer dominating.”

In Chinese medicine, energy, or “qi,” flows through pathways in the body. “Sometimes the energy is blocked, deficient, excessive, or unbalanced. This puts the body out of balance and causes illness,” explains Elizabeth Trattner, a board-certified doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine in Miami Beach, Florida. “Acupuncture restores homeostasis and encourages healing.”

How It Works

As part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture uses a “whole system,” or holistic approach to health. This holistic approach may include recommendations for:

  • Exercise: Qi Gong and Tai Chi in particular
  • Nutrition
  • Phytotherapy: Utilizing medicines that come from plants and herbs
  • Psychotherapy

“We don’t separate the physical and mental aspects [of a patient], as they’re both intimately tied together,” explains Trattner. For example, you may tell an acupuncturist you’re feeling anxious and waking up sweaty in the middle of the night. They won’t consider these as two separate issues but rather symptoms of one of the most common explanations for anxiety in Chinese medicine: “yin deficiency.” Yin, along with yang, helps align qi. Yin deficiency, often related to emotional issues, can manifest as anxiety, night sweats, tension, and depression.

What Happens in a Session?

An acupuncturist will first discuss your health goals before placing any needles. During the initial assessment, you’ll go through a thorough medical history. Then, you’ll relax on a comfortable table, typically face up, while very fine needles—about the width of a hair—are carefully inserted just under the skin’s surface. When placed correctly, they shouldn’t hurt. The needles stay in for about 30 minutes. Depending on the acupuncturist, you might be left in the room with a heat lamp, blanket, essential oils, or soothing sound frequencies playing.

Where Do Acupuncture Needles Go for Anxiety?

The needles are inserted into specific acupoints based on your symptoms. For anxiety, these points may include:

  • Between your eyebrows
  • Insides of your wrists
  • On the feet
  • Your breastbone or ears

What Are the Benefits?

One review looked at 20 studies of acupuncture in people with generalized anxiety disorder. The authors concluded that acupuncture can reduce anxiety symptoms compared to medication, sham acupuncture, and other non-acupuncture therapies. However, more high-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to understand its effectiveness for different types of anxiety disorders, such as:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias
  • Selective mutism
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder

Acupuncture may also be helpful for surgical procedures. One study found that people who had acupuncture before gallbladder surgery or hernia repair experienced less preoperative anxiety than those who took Midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication.

Additionally, many studies on acupuncture focus on its therapeutic effects for low-back, neck, and knee pain and headaches. There’s some evidence that acupuncture may help ease anxiety in people with chronic pain, potentially by regulating brain regions involved in pain and emotion.

What Are the Potential Risks and Side Effects?

Acupuncture is relatively safe if you visit a skilled, board-certified practitioner who uses sterile needles. Single-use disposable needles are the industry standard. Avoid practitioners who use nonsterile needles or improper procedures, as this could lead to complications. Potential side effects include:

  • Bleeding
  • Central nervous system injury
  • Faintness during the session
  • Hematoma (severe bruising)
  • Infections
  • Needle pain
  • Punctured organs

However, with a properly trained and certified practitioner, the risks are minimal.

What Can You Do at Home?

Acupuncture needles can only be sold to licensed, qualified acupuncture practitioners, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. Certified practitioners undergo extensive training to learn acupuncture point locations and palpation.

Alternatively, you could try acupressure. Research shows that acupressure, which uses the same principles as acupuncture but without needles, can be effective in reducing anxiety. You can use your hands, fingers, thumbs, or a stylus/probe to apply pressure to certain acupoints for symptom relief.

In summary, acupuncture offers a promising alternative for managing anxiety. By working with a qualified practitioner, you can experience its benefits with minimal risks. If needles aren’t your preference, acupressure provides a needle-free option to explore


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