In western medicine, anxiety is often regarded as a chronic condition of excessive, and irrational fear, dread or worry that becomes debilitating over time. Types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, as well as other specific phobias. Along with these emotional issues, physical symptoms can also arise including muscle tension, nausea, sweating, GI conditions, insomnia, and fatigue, among others (1) (more on PTSD here).
Acupuncture as well as specific herbs can directly address and ameliorate these conditions. Dietary changes and nutritional supplementation as well as exercise, meditation, and mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi or qi gong can help sustain the improvements obtained from acupuncture and herbal remedies so you can get back to living your life—free from anxiety.
Several recent studies have validated the effectiveness of acupuncture on anxiety. One study performed over a 6-week period demonstrated that acupuncture in combination with SSRIs proved to be more effective than the SSRIs alone. (2) Another study noted “the volume of literature, consistency of statistically significant results, wide range of conditions treated and use of animal test subjects suggests very real, positive outcomes,” making it clear that acupuncture can be beneficial in treating these conditions. (3)
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, anxiety is categorized in three different ways:
- Fear and Palpitations (Jing Ji)
This condition is often brought on by external events, specifically fright or shock, and can develop into panic throbbing, which is more severe.
- Panic Throbbing (Zheng Chong)
This is not brought on by specific external events, and is described in TCM as the heart shaking in the chest. In panic throbbing, qi (or life force) cannot stay grounded in its place of origin and exhaustion often ensues. Panic attacks would fall into this category.
- Rebellious Qi of the Penetrating Vessel (Chong Mai)
This is often described as an internal urgency (Li Ji) or feeling of restlessness that radiates upwards from the lower abdomen, often causing feelings of tightness or fullness in the upper chest, hot flashes, palpitations, breathlessness as well as cold feet and irregular or painful menstrual cycles in women.
Factors that can influence anxiety in TCM include emotional stress—fear, shock, guilt, shame, pensiveness and even excess joy can lead to qi stagnation or deficiency in certain areas of the body. This essentially means that energy is “stuck” and not getting where it needs to go. Over time, stagnate qi can generate too much heat and these stagnations and deficiencies begin to send organs out of balance—specifically the heart, lungs, kidneys, spleen, and liver when we’re talking about anxiety.
Five types of Anxiety in TCM (as they relate to the organs):
The main symptom here is palpitations, simply meaning that you’re aware of the heart beating in an uncomfortable way. Other things like tightness or oppression in the chest, insomnia, feeling restless, fidgety and flustered indicate a Heart pattern.
Lung patterns usually result from grief or loss and are characterized by tightness in the lungs, frequent crying, and a pale complexion, weak voice and weak pulse. Anxiety over spiritual matters, existential suffering, and life’s meaning are common in a Lung pattern.
Fear is the emotion related to the kidneys. This person may appear gaunt, have a dark complexion with a look of panic in the eyes, and often feel hot in the face or dizzy. Kidney patterns tend to manifest as pessimism, chronic fear and guilt, and expecting the worst in all situations.
The spleen is related to pensiveness. This is often seen as having mental arguments with yourself, or thoughts that go around in circles, possibly becoming obsessive. People with spleen anxiety may be prone to grasping or clinging, excess weight gain, suffer from lack of mothering, or have a tendency to put other’s needs before their own.
Worry is the trademark sign of liver anxiety. A person with a Liver pattern is often a perfectionist, sets high standards for themselves and often feels a dissatisfaction with their achievements or a sense of “not being good enough.” This person is often thin and sinewy in body type.
- Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier. 2008: 385-395.
- Chan, Yuan-Yu et al. The benefit of combined acupuncture and antidepressant medication for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2015(176): 106-117.
- Errington-Evans Nick. Acupuncture for anxiety. CNS Neurosciences and Therapeutics. 2012;18(4):277-84.
by Claire Stark
Claire Stark is an undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in medical anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a certified yoga instructor at the 200-hour level registered with Yoga Alliance. Working towards a career in acupuncture and holistic health, Claire is passionate about a mind-body-spirit approach to healing in order to help people achieve long-lasting, sustainable wellness in all facets of life.