Can Acupuncture Relieve Depression And Stress?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated July 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Research shows that more than 17 million American adults experience depression each year. If you experience depression and you’d like to try something natural, you might consider acupuncture as a potential option. This ancient Chinese practice has been used for more than 2,000 years to treat many different health conditions. Acupuncture for stress and depression may provide you with relief from the symptoms you’re experiencing. 

Below, we’ll explore acupuncture, its treatments, the theories behind its use, and ways that it might work for depression.

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What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a practice that stems from ancient Chinese medicine. It involves the insertion of small, thin needles into different places on the body to treat a variety of health problems. According to acupuncture practitioners, your body is divided into different categories, zones, and pressure points. 

Chinese medicine treats the body slightly differently than conventional treatment approaches like those used in Western medicine. This can be difficult to understand for those who aren’t familiar with the differences. It may help to learn how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) understands the body and why acupuncture can be a useful healing modality.

Acupuncture began in ancient China over 2,000 years ago, and trained practitioners continue to use this tradition to this day. One of the premises behind acupuncture is that there is a steady flow of energy (qi) moving throughout the body. If this energy flows freely, experts argue, the body can experience health and wellness.

This energy is believed to pass through certain points, called meridians. Within TCM, there are 12 main meridians spread throughout the body, and they’re each associated with certain organs. Also, there are over 2,000 specific acupuncture points that skilled practitioners can work with.

Acupuncture specialists believe that if these meridians are blocked, energy can’t flow through them as easily, and this can lead to illness and pain in the body. Acupuncture tends to focus on these blocked meridians, stimulating specific points, so that the energy flow can continue freely. This is the Eastern approach to acupuncture.

Western research, on the other hand, tends to attribute acupuncture's efficacy to the possibility that these tiny needles activate natural painkillers (endorphins) found within the brain. Western research is still exploring how acupuncture for depression works. 

Below, we’ll discuss what can lead to depression in the body and explore the relationship acupuncture has with these factors, as well as with depression itself.

What causes energy in the body to get stuck?

Many acupuncture practitioners believe that there are several factors that can lead to blocked energy:

  • Emotional stress, such as worry, anger, fear, grief, and bitterness
  • Dietary and nutritional choices
  • Injuries

According to acupuncture experts, when the energy flow within the body is interrupted, it can lead to both physiological and psychological distress, and acupuncture may be able to address these issues. Once these root causes are managed, you may experience healing from your depression.

How does acupuncture treatment work?

A licensed acupuncture practitioner works with very fine, sterilized needles and gently places them on specific points on the skin to stimulate particular points within the body. Since the needles are very thin, acupuncture is typically a pain-free treatment.

This is how acupuncture is administered, but how can it help with depression and stress? To answer that question, we’ll explore how stress can impact someone's mental health.

The connection between chronic stress and depression

Stress can cause significant damage to the entire body, causing physical, emotional, and psychological harm. Below are some of the possible symptoms it can cause, broken down by category:

Emotional symptoms of stress

  • Feelings of frustration and irritation
  • Disproportionate feelings of overwhelm
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Feelings of depression
  • A desire to isolate oneself from others

Physical symptoms of stress

  • Lack of energy
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, as well as body aches and pains
  • Low libido

Cognitive symptoms of stress

  • Non-stop thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Memory problems
  • Feelings of pessimism
  • Difficulty focusing and making decisions

Behavioral symptoms of stress

  • Under- or over-eating
  • Procrastination
  • Substance misuse

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

High stress levels can lead to many different challenges, such as panic attacks, depression, and digestive disorders. These complications (particularly depression) may be more common when an individual experiences chronic stress. Since acupuncture works with the central nervous system and depression is connected to the central nervous system, acupuncture may help to relieve stress and the symptoms of depression. Here's how:

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Acupuncture for stress and how stress relates to the nervous system

The "fight-or-flight" response refers to the way in which we respond to immediate stress. It's the response of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Chronic stress can lead to a constant SNS response; this can take a toll on the body and potentially lead to stress-related disorders. To counteract this fight-or-flight response, our body has something called the parasympathetic nervous system, which can bring a feeling of calm, rest, and relaxation. Some practitioners of acupuncture believe that it can help the nervous system adapt making acupuncture a potentially effective treatment for stress. 

In sum, many people experience chronic stress, and this can lead to symptoms of depression. Acupuncture may help support your body's central nervous system so that you can reduce stress or cope with it more effectively in your daily life. If you're more equipped to handle stress, you may experience less depression.

Studies showing the efficacy of acupuncture for depression

There hasn't been extensive long-term research on acupuncture for depression as of yet. However, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says, the "evidence for the use of …to treat anxiety disorders is becoming stronger."

A 2013 review published in the journal Medical Acupuncture found there was a “significant difference between acupuncture and at least one control in all six trials.” The researchers concluded that “there is high-level evidence to support the use of acupuncture for treating major depressive disorder in pregnancy.”

A second study, published in the same journal, found that acupuncture can bring significant improvement among people who experience sexual dysfunction due to their antidepressant medication. This dysfunction included a low libido and an inability to reach orgasm, especially in men.

Does acupuncture for depression have long-term effects?

According to a study on acupuncture published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, acupuncture can produce results that are similar to those of other treatments. According to this study involving women with depression, relapse rates were also similar to those of other depression treatments. What researchers found is that of the 17 women who had experienced a full remission of their depression symptoms by the end of the trial, four had a relapse within the six-month follow-up period.

Therefore, acupuncture may be a useful and effective way to bring short-term relief to individuals with depression. It may also be a helpful treatment method at the early onset of depression.

With more time and extensive research, Western medicine may be more equipped to explain an ancient practice that has positively supported people's health and well-being for thousands of years. 

Acupuncture as a complementary practice for depression

While studies have found that acupuncture for depression can be both safe and effective, it may be helpful to view it as a complementary practice to support other treatments. In a study that included over 750 individuals who experienced moderate to severe depression, researchers found that participants who received acupuncture had a greater reduction in their depression symptoms than those who received treatment as usual. However, many of the participants were also taking medication for depression. 

Therefore, acupuncture may serve as a complementary treatment to medication and therapy, in addition to evidence-based self-care approaches, such as a balanced diet, physical activity, and adequate sleep. 

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Acupuncture for depression takes a personalized approach

What is called “depression” in Western medicine can be a combination of many forms of disharmony in Chinese medicine. A skilled and licensed acupuncturist may observe your symptoms and choose to work with specific meridian and acupuncture points to help you with your specific experience of depression. 

Therefore, your acupuncture treatment can be customized for you. A tailored approach may dictate the number of appointments you have as well as the amount of time in between each acupuncture session, depending on your specific needs.

Online therapy for depression and stress

While acupuncture may help relieve symptoms associated with depression and stress, it is generally not considered a substitute for medical care and mental health care, such as talk therapy. If you’re experiencing depression or stress and don’t feel well enough to visit a therapist’s office, you may benefit from online therapy, which research has shown to be effective for depression

With an online therapy service like BetterHelp, you can receive support via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing. There’s no need to drive long distances to attend a session, and you can meet with your therapist from wherever you have an internet connection. This can make it particularly useful for those with depression who find it challenging to get out of bed or leave the house.

The efficacy of online therapy

Online counseling can be an effective alternative to traditional therapy settings, specifically for people with depression or stress. A report in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that participants in an internet-based intervention trial experienced stable results at three-month follow-up. On the other hand, the participants who received traditional in-person therapy saw significantly worsened symptoms of depression at follow-up. While traditional therapy is still a viable option if available, online counseling can have many benefits.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have experienced similar concerns:

Therapist reviews

“Kalene is attentive, insightful, patient, and helpful. She has been consistent in speaking with me every week, even if I haven't responded to her. This makes me feel seen. Kalene has a calming demeanor to her that creates a safe space for me to discuss the things I'm feeling as well and to be honest about what I need to improve and work on to be healthier.”

“Working with Ms. Eaves over the last few months has been such a wonderful experience. It was very easy to build a rapport with her, and I felt like the conversation during our sessions flowed very easily. She helped me to identify specific issues and triggers, and then provided exercises and suggestions to help me better manage my mental health.”

Takeaway

Acupuncture can be a helpful treatment to consider for those who are looking for new ways to treat their depression or stress. While it is not considered a replacement for medical or therapeutic intervention, it can be a useful supplement to medication and therapy. If you don’t feel well enough to see a therapist in person, you might consider online therapy, which research has shown to be an effective, viable option for individuals experiencing depression or stress. Take the first step toward healing from depression or stress and reach out to BetterHelp.

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