Is Acupuncture A Good Idea To Treat Anxiety?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Though still sometimes negatively stigmatized, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States and the world. Affecting over 40 million adults over 18 in the United States alone, anxiety can come in several categories and exists on a spectrum, affecting everyone differently. 

Some people have mild cases associated with an activity or certain phobia, like public speaking. Others may have more severe anxiety that can prevent them from doing the things they normally do, such as going to the gym, completing work tasks, or even enjoying their hobbies.

There are all sorts of treatments for anxiety symptoms, most notably psychotherapy like CBT. However, some people choose to pursue alternative solutions. In this article, we'll discuss one of those alternative options: acupuncture treatments to help the nervous system for anxiety.

Are anxiety symptoms affecting you or your loved ones?

What are anxiety disorders?

While most people experience the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety occasionally, persistent or severe anxiety may signal the existence of a psychiatric disorder. Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions characterized by excessive fear and nervousness. There are several anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. 

Therapy and medication are considered effective treatment methods for anxiety disorders. Additionally, many people utilize an integrative medicine or holistic approach, incorporating acupuncture and other complementary modalities into psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatment. Others primarily utilize alternative medicine techniques when managing anxiety.

The following are three common anxiety disorders—generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. 

Generalized anxiety disorder

Marked by persistent, heightened nervousness and fear, generalized anxiety disorder is a common mental health condition that can significantly affect an individual’s well-being and ability to function. Typically, to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, a person must have experienced anxiety symptoms more days than not for six months. 

Panic disorder

An individual who experiences frequent panic attacks—sudden, brief periods of intense anxiety—may be living with panic disorder. Panic attacks can cause serious physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms that can include rapid breathing, racing heart, sweating, dizziness, confusion, and the feeling of losing control. 

Social anxiety disorder

Characterized by excessive nervousness and worry in social situations, social anxiety disorder can impact several areas of an individual’s life. In addition to mental health concerns, social anxiety can cause trembling, sweating, gastrointestinal distress, and blushing. The symptoms of social anxiety disorder are often associated with a fear of being perceived negatively. 

If you believe you’re living with an anxiety disorder or other mental health challenge, a healthcare provider can administer screenings and determine whether further testing, a diagnosis, and treatment are necessary. 

Acupuncture – A traditional Chinese medicine practice

When you first hear it described or see it in action, acupuncture might seem strange because it's not a widely utilized technique in the United States. However, it is more widely accepted in Chinese medicine and has been used as a solution for anything from pain management to mental stress. 

Acupuncture is an ancient practice in traditional Chinese medicine that traces its roots back approximately 3,000 years. The first existing documentation of it is in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, from 100 BCE, an ancient book on disease and health.

The basic idea of acupuncture is that long, thin needles are carefully inserted into the body at specific points along a system called meridians, which results in a release of those pressure points. This is meant to treat various symptoms, from headaches to joint pain to anxiety.

Acupuncture treatment can stimulate relief from stress hormones to reduce anxiety and panic attacks. A licensed acupuncturist can try to alleviate some of the symptoms of certain mental health conditions and help you manage stress. Some people report the effect of acupuncture with a significant reduction of certain symptoms after they work with a licensed acupuncturist. Because of these effects, it has been integrated into complementary and alternative medicine approaches. 

Be that as it may, it is often regarded as a pseudoscience in other parts of the world because the practices and theories behind it are not considered to be well-supported by scientific knowledge. However, more recently, many studies have shown that acupuncture could indeed be effective for various conditions when treated by a certified acupuncturist. We will explore a few of those studies below.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is believed to work by relieving discomfort associated with several physical and emotional ailments according to a growing body of research. There's emerging evidence that you can use acupuncture to improve overall well-being or for treating more specific symptoms like:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Neck pain
  • Low back pain
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Knee pain
  • Allergy and sinus issues
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Fibromyalgia

According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture can balance the flow of energy, known as 'qi' or 'chi,' which is believed to flow through specific pathways – known as meridians – across the body, this is why acupuncture for stress can be a good initial remedy.

In more modern medicine, on the other hand, many healthcare providers theorize that by applying pressure to certain points, acupuncture stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the relaxation response) and releases various natural chemicals and hormones to help lower pain. This can counteract the effects of the other part of the autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic nervous system, which prompts the fight-or-flight response—reducing anxiety. 

Can acupuncture cure anxiety?

First, it could be important to note that anxiety is not “cured” but rather treated. With help, you can learn to manage anxiety symptoms, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being “healed” or “cured.” 

As for acupuncture, recent research studies in acupuncture for anxiety have yielded very promising results. For example, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials published in 2010 reported some evidence that shows that acupuncture could help treat anxiety and depression in women during pregnancy.

While anxiety can work against the brain and body, research suggests that acupuncture can counteract that process to benefit your health and stress levels. In a 2001 study in the Journal of Anesthesia and Analgesia, participants receiving auricular (ear) acupuncture experienced reduced preoperative anxiety compared to those receiving sham acupuncture. Specifically, the test measured anxiety and stress, blood pressure, heart rate, and electrodermal activity 30 minutes, 24 hours, and 48 hours after insertion of the auricular needles, which were left in for 48 hours. The study concluded that particular insertion points are most effective (in this case, "relaxed" insertion points along with the ear).

Scientific evidence continues to support the claim that acupuncture affects the nervous system in beneficial ways. In a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in 2021, researchers found that acupuncture may reduce anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). However, it may be important to note that much of the existing research on acupuncture and mental health isn't always considered reliable because of poor design or because they have a small sample size (very few participants). This isn't to say that acupuncture is ineffective, but rather that more research is needed before forming any solid conclusions on the effects of acupuncture. 

Where should you go for acupuncture for anxiety?

Go to a general practitioner or a mental health professional you trust and ask them for a recommendation regarding someone you can see for anxiety acupuncture. Like with any other doctor, or therapist, you’ll typically want to go to someone with reliable experience and positive reviews from other clients. You may be able to get a recommendation from another practitioner. 

If your doctor or therapist doesn't know anyone, you should at least try searching for an acupuncture practitioner online who has many good reviews and displays their credentials and licensure either on their website or in-office.

Once you've found a professional acupuncture provider, you should talk with them before your session to get the best idea of exactly what's going to be happening and what you should expect. They can show you on a chart of the human body mapped out with pressure points which areas may be associated with anxiety and other negative thoughts and emotions.

Risks of using acupuncture for anxiety symptoms

Acupuncture is widely considered safe when performed by a licensed, well-trained, experienced professional. There's no known current evidence that acupuncture could exacerbate or worsen your anxiety. However, if you have a profound fear of inserting needles (trypanophobia), this may not be the best treatment. 

The main side effect people experience after acupuncture is soreness and bruising at the acupuncture points, but this usually goes away within a couple of days and can be managed with things like icing the areas, taking an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen, or taking an Epsom salt bath to help reduce soreness and inflammation. 

You should consult with your doctor or refrain from using acupuncture altogether if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia
  • Seizure disorder
  • Trypanophobia
  • Use a pacemaker
  • Are pregnant (unless your doctor has said it's okay) 

Are anxiety symptoms affecting you or your loved ones?

Your acupuncture session

After discussing your symptoms and agreeing on which pressure points your provider will target, you will typically be asked to lie on a padded examining table. 

The next step involves carefully inserting the needles into the target areas. Acupuncture needles are very thin, so you shouldn't expect to feel pain during the procedure – though some folks report a mild aching sensation when the needle reaches the intended pressure point. Tell your provider if you experience pain or discomfort at any point.

The practitioner may twist, wiggle, or manipulate the needles during the session, and they may also apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles. This is all sometimes believed to make the treatment more effective and again shouldn't cause you any pain. 

Takeaway

Acupuncture is considered very safe when performed by an experienced professional, and studies show that it could be a great complementary therapy for people with anxiety. If you take medications for anxiety, never stop taking them without discussing them with your doctor first. 

If you want to talk to someone about your anxiety and get an unbiased opinion about what your best treatment options might be, a licensed mental health professional can help you express your feelings in a safe environment to work through your anxiety symptoms. They may also provide recommendations for alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, music therapy, mindfulness, etc., which may have fewer side effects than psychiatric medication. Reach out to a BetterHelp therapist today to get started.  

Are you reluctant about online therapy? Rest assured that various clinical studies have demonstrated that online therapy can be extremely effective in treating and reducing the symptoms of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common method for treating anxiety, and online cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be just as effective as in-person CBT. Online therapy comes with added benefits as well, for example, it is incredibly convenient and allows people to get treatment even if they have mobility issues or if they live in a remote area where treatment isn’t as readily available.

Regulate anxiety in a compassionate environment
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