Anxiety is the most common mental health problem amongst people in the U.S., and the numbers of people seeking medical help for types of anxiety disorders are increasing dramatically. Anxiety is clinically defined as a persistent feeling of apprehension, accompanied by physical sensations such as increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and sweating. Worrying is a normal response to stressors in the environment, and the attendant physical feelings are the result of a complex series of reactions in the brain, nervous system and endocrine system. Anxiety becomes a disorder when these reactions occur without reason or warning, and the symptoms of anxiety become so severe that they are debilitating.
It is estimated that only about 40% of people who struggle with anxiety actually get medical treatment for anxiety symptoms. Since about 20% of Americans do seek treatment for anxiety disorders each year, that means many, many people are suffering and not getting help. Typically, when people do consult a doctor about anxiety, they are referred for psychotherapy or prescribed medications, or both. Acupuncture and TCM have been shown to be more helpful for relieving panic attacks, sleep anxiety, and shortness of breath anxiety than benzodiazepine drugs, which can cause side effects and lead to dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
7 Types of Anxiety Disorders
Different types of anxiety have different origins and manifest unique combinations of anxiety symptoms in each individual. Some types of anxiety disorders stem from traumatic events in a person’s life, while others may be caused by physical chemical imbalances within the brain and endocrine system. By the time anxiety becomes severe, the mental, emotional and physical effects all trigger one another in a repetitive yet scarily unpredictable pattern.
Mental health professionals differentiate several types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – when a person has been experiencing a heightened sense of worry, usually focused on normal circumstances such as work, school, relationships or personal health, daily for a period over six months, it is diagnosed as GAD. The constant sense of fear can have a serious negative impact on the ability to cope with daily routines. Symptoms of GAD include: persistent tension, feeling “edgy,” fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and restless sleep.
- Panic Disorder – when a person has recurrent panic attacks–sudden, intense sensations of fear and dread that peak within a few minutes and gradually subside. These can occur unexpectedly or be triggered by a stressful situation. Symptoms of a panic attack include: palpitations, accelerated heartbeat, sweating, shaking or trembling, difficulty breathing, sensation of choking, feeling of intense dread, sense of being out of control, unable to function. Panic attacks are terrifying when they occur, and create a more persistent feeling of worry, as a person wonders when and why it might happen again at any time.
- Phobia-related disorders – involve fear related to a specific object or situation, such as flying in an airplane or a certain animal. Agoraphobia is a common phobia, in which a person is afraid to leave her own home.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – creates unbidden thought patterns that cause a person to compulsively repeat behaviors such as hand-washing, counting items, or constantly checking safety measures.
- Social Anxiety – causes people to avoid social situations, worrying that others are judging them negatively, or feeling excessively embarrassed by perceived awkward interactions. This disorder can negatively impact one’s ability to thrive in educational or work settings, and to feel lacking in social support.
- Separation Anxiety – often associated with anxiety in children who are learning to detach from their parents, but separation anxiety in adults is also possible. People of all ages can experience deep fears related to the possibility of being separated from their loved ones.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – is a response to an extremely traumatic life event. Having endured an attack or witnessing something horrifying, a person may experience flashbacks, reliving the moments and feeling the same overwhelming terror. The resulting anxiety and depression can last years if it is inadequately addressed.
Mental health professionals generally treat all of these disorders with psychotherapy or prescribed medications, or both. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety often focuses on talking about the person’s fears and consciously learning and practicing new ways to think and react in stressful situations. Psychiatric medications are used to try to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax work on the nervous system and have a sedative effect. Antidepressants or SSRIs are often prescribed for anxiety because they work on serotonin levels in the brain. People tend to build up a tolerance to these drugs, and can sometimes form a dependence on them, suffering withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking them.
How to Treat Anxiety Symptoms with Acupuncture
One of the greatest benefits of acupuncture for chronic anxiety is that the effects are immediate. Most patients feel calmer right after their first acupuncture treatment, and experience even more anxiety relief as the cumulative results of a full course of treatment build up over time. Sleep anxiety and restless sleep are usually alleviated quickly.
TCM providers are trained to address the mental, emotional, and physical needs of each patient in a holistic way. A mind-body approach means that every aspect of the patient’s lifestyle, life history, health history and constitution are taken into consideration before a treatment plan is developed. TCM treatment symptoms of anxiety may include a combination of several modalities: acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, herbal supplements, diet and nutrition guidance, and moxibustion.
In conventional medicine, anxiety disorders are considered to be dysfunctions in a person’s brain chemistry. An acupuncturist views anxiety as an imbalance in a person’s organ systems. According to TCM philosophy, there are five zang and six fu organs. Anxiety disorders are generally considered to stem from the zang organs. The zang organs are heart, lung, spleen, liver, and kidneys. These organs are reservoirs of Qi, blood, and other body fluids. The heart is also believed to house the “Shen,” or spirit, of the person, but when a person is coping with anxiety, the Shen is always out of harmony in some way. Each zang organ corresponds to a particular emotion and attendant symptoms.
- Heart – sadness, despair, trouble sleeping
- Spleen – worry, focusing too much on one thing, fatigue
- Liver – anger, bitterness, losing one’s temper
- Lung – grief, detachment
- Kidneys – fear, feelings of isolation, weakness
The role of an acupuncturist is to investigate the underlying causes of the anxiety by carrying out a thorough diagnostic evaluation in order to determine which organ system has been affected and is out of balance. The acupuncturist will then seek to restore balance by inserting fine, sterile needles into the points correlating to those organs.
From a more scientific perspective, Acupuncture has been shown to increase levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, helping to produce sensations of relaxation and well-being. Acupuncture can help reduce the occurrence of panic attacks, improve sleep, and reduce apprehension before and after surgical procedures.
TCM Herbs are Natural Remedies for Anxiety Relief
Specific Chinese herb formulas have been shown to have natural anxiolytic properties. Overall, herbal remedies are safer and more effective than prescription medicines for anxiety. One study compared the results of patients taking an SSRI antidepressant medication for anxiety versus patients treated with acupuncture and a Chinese herb formulation designed to work on the spleen and liver. After two weeks, the patients using TCM showed significantly more improvement of anxiety symptoms over the patients using only pharmacological intervention. SSRIs seek to correct dysfunctions of serotonin production and utilization within the brain, but these medications do not work for everyone, and people build up a tolerance to the effects of the drugs.
Anxiety Relief with TCM Doctors in Santa Monica, CA
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, do not hesitate to contact us at Art of Wellness. Receiving regular acupuncture treatments can not only reduce current symptoms of anxiety, but can boost your immune system, improve quality of life and longevity. Establishing a trusting partnership with an experienced, highly qualified TCM provider will allow you to heal and move forward with a more harmonious life.