“Take a deep breath in through your nose, and now out through your mouth”
On the exhale, a tiny needle is placed in the top my foot. I wince just a bit, always finding that spot tender.
“Liver two and three are on top of the foot,” Amy reminded me, explaining how the liver is responsible for the free flow of emotional Qi in the body. Then she returns to sticking more needles in me, all in the search for some serenity.
I never thought I would look forward to needles being inserted all over my body. Yet here I am getting acupcunture for my anxiety every single week. From my feet to my stomach to my arms and ears, I become a human pincushion as my trusted acupuncturist Amy Mager MS, LicAc, treats me.
When I was first diagnosed with severe, debilitating anxiety, I was at a complete loss. What I was going through went beyond the random, stray worry that most people experience. I suffered from a host of physical symptoms including losing 20 pounds in two weeks, chest pains, non-stop body sweats, insomnia, exhaustion, a clenched jaw, stomach issues, and more. It all came together in a whirlwind convergence of physical and mental symptoms that sidelined me from daily life for a few months.
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As I had never experienced anything like that before, and because it threw my life into such disarray, I was open to any and all treatments. I was under the care of a physician, nurse practitioner, and therapist. My blood, heart, gut, and more were being tested for any potential underlying conditions, and in the meantime I began treating the anxiety with medication. I took an Ativan for more immediate, panic attack-type experiences while I waited for my long-lasting Citalopram to kick in. My providers cautioned that it could take up to six to eight weeks to see any true impact from the latter med. I couldn’t imagine living with severe anxiety for that long, so in the meantime I searched all over for alternative treatments.
I did yoga, worked on my breathing, took long walks, exercised, ate both healthily and indulgently, but nothing was speeding along my recovery. And then, a friend suggested acupuncture.
At first I balked. I had no clue how that would help. Wouldn’t it hurt? Wasn’t it expensive? But my friend persisted and recommended someone local in particular. Tired and angry and ready to feel “normal” again, I made an appointment.
Right from the start I had a good feeling about Amy. She took the time to listen to me, what had been going on with my body overall, and check in to see how I was feeling in that moment. I had walked into my first session apprehensive, my insides painfully wound up. Over an hour later I had somehow managed to fall asleep, cry out of the blue, and allowed my body to relax in a way I hadn’t felt in weeks. A few sessions later and Amy was remarking on the very tangible difference within me. “Your eyes are alive and sparkling!” she exclaimed. Was it simply my medicine finally kicking in, or could these little needles truly be making such a big impact?
Acupuncture — a form of alternative medicine and a key component of traditional Chinese medicine — involves placing small, thin needles into various points on the body in order to treat a variety of ailments.
“The body is covered in acupuncture meridians, which are external reflections of what’s happening inside the body and its organs,” explains Dylan Stein, LAc, a practicing acupuncturist in New York City. “They’re kind of like invisible highways. Just like drivers hate being stuck in bad traffic, the meridians and their internal counterparts don’t like being blocked. Acupuncture helps clear those blockages so the “highways” stay open.”
According to my own acupuncturist Amy, who has been practicing for 25 years, different types of anxiety reflect imbalances in different organ systems — like the liver in my case. But, it can be different for different people. “When we are over thinking and ruminating, then we know that we are looking at spleen and heart involvement,” says Amy. “Other organs are involved in different types of anxiety. Sleuthing that out and looking at what other symptoms that person has and working to bring those systems into balance are what affects change.”
READ MORE: How Acupuncture Stopped My Teeth Grinding
Amy, who works in Western Massachusetts, has many patients, mostly women but some men, who come in specifically to treat anxiety. She has seen an increase in patients coming in for anxiety and attributes it to people — like me — who are seeking complementary treatments along with more traditional medication and therapy. She also sees many pregnant women with anxiety, especially those concerned about potential issues with medication and their babies.
On the flip side, over in New York City, Dylan notes that people who come for acupuncture to only treat anxiety are actually in the minority in his practice. “I attribute that to people not knowing how helpful acupuncture is for anxiety and other mental-emotional complaints,” he explained. “Chinese medicine doesn’t have a distinction between mind and body, so our courses of treatment are more holistic. I may be biased, but I believe we have such good outcomes because we’re able to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms.”
The holistic approach is also at the core of Amy’s practice. “When patients come in with anxiety then we work on several different levels,” she said. “Checking in, with words and listening. Reflecting back what you hear and looking for tools that will support folks between treatments.”
After a month of regular treatments, I couldn’t help but notice a difference. I would always have the best sleep of the week the night after my acupuncture appointment. And I would also feel lighter. My chest wouldn’t be clenched as tightly and the raw current of anxiety that seems to continuously float just beneath the surface of my skin was dissipate for a while, allowing me to experience a semblance of normalcy, if only for a little while. And I’m not the only one finding relief for anxiety with acupuncture.
READ MORE: What Are Natural Remedies for Depression?
Emily, a 26-year old from Canada first starting using acupuncture to help get pregnant, and found that it actually ended up helping her anxiety. “Dealing with the anxiety around not being pregnant when I wanted to be was exhausting, and acupuncture gave me a break from worrying if I was doing the right things, and constantly thinking about my fertility,” she told me. “I was skeptical that it would do anything other than be a time for self-care, but I was calmed in a way that just lying in a dark room with quiet music could never accomplish.”
Writer Hayley Krischer also noticed the anxiety-reducing benefits when she started seeing an acupuncturist years ago for sinus issues. Her acupuncturist suggested that in addition to sinus relief, Haley use it to treat anxiety: “She told me my emotions were high. Which, she wasn’t wrong. I don’t go regularly enough for anxiety, but when I go, I feel more relaxed. More grounded. Not as racy, or worried. I also sleep better after acupuncture.”
Despite multiple stories that mimic mine, Emily and Hayley’s, there are still many who don’t believe in the effectiveness of acupuncture, whether for anxiety or in general. Fortunately, research continues to be published supporting acupuncture as a useful treatment.
For those interested in seeing if acupuncture is right for them, both Dylan and Amy have some suggestions in getting started. Each stressed the importance of making sure you look for a licensed acupuncturist. Amy suggests asking friends or your therapist for suggestions, as well as doing some investigating on your own, including checking out websites and calling potential providers. “No one is the right match for everyone, and anyone you would want to work with will be willing to talk to you,” she said. “When I’m not the right match for someone, I work to connect them with the person who is.”
“Make sure you have a good rapport and get a good vibe from the practitioner,” suggested Dylan. “You want someone who gets you, makes you feel safe, and inspires trust. Clear communication is an important part of this too. The practitioner should be able to talk clearly about what to expect and how treatment will progress. If you’re still not connecting after a couple of treatments, find someone new. Talk to the practitioner, but remember your needs come first.”
As for me, I will continue seeing Amy as often as I can, allowing her to cover me in needles that wash away the pain, frustration and stress of anxiety. My anxiety certainly requires a village to tackle it, and that now includes my friendly, neighborhood acupuncturist.
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