Treating Stress with Acupuncture

My work with acupuncture brings me all types of patients with all kinds of health complaints. What is very common however is the theme of palpable stress in people’s lives. So often I am told ‘I didn’t use to be like this’.

I think of it as ‘stress syndrome’, or a variety of symptoms that are caused by the pressure of life in this corner of the world.

Some people describe stress like a clock sitting on their shoulder, constantly telling them they’re running out of time. For others it feels like a crushing weight on their chest. Somebody described their stress to me as being like a drug; a powerful influence that makes you lose perspective and burn-out, yet they return to it time and again.

From my work with patients, I see stress as a perceived inability to cope with how much we have going on in our lives, a pressure to ‘keep-up’. It’s a desire to keep all the plates spinning that we worked so hard to get, but the struggle to maintain them gets too much. As we get older the stakes get higher and it takes more work than ever to maintain what we’ve got.

Physical signs of stress

Acupuncturists practice pulse taking, not just feeling for the pulse-rate but also the quality. Often in highly stressed-out patients the pulse will take on a wiry quality, feeling much like a guitar string, taught. Over the course of acupuncture treatment I often feel this change and the pulse softens. This is a simple investigation but one of many which uncovers the telltale signs of stress.

Stress can be insidious when it comes to our health. It’s a palpitation on the way to a meeting, losing your appetite when there’s a deadline or getting a migraine when there’s a last minute change of plans. This is our body’s way of letting us know we need to take a step back. When the symptoms become chronic, the stress has gotten too much and it’s time to get help.

For some people, stress eventually becomes a default setting. The behaviours they develop in the face of mounting stress work their way into their persona, to the point where they prepare to find stress in every situation. This is what’s often referred to as ‘adrenal fatigue’. We can become constantly ‘switched-on’ to stress. If you think this is you, read my article, E=MC²: Adrenal Fatigue and Traditional Chinese Medicine, for tips on how to interrupt the cycle.

Anxiety is the manifestation of stress in our behaviour. When we have been exposed to severe stress (this is relative to the individual) over time we can develop unhealthy coping behaviours, such as shallow breathing, compulsions and negative thinking. Childhood exposure to adults who are stressed can leave a lasting impression too and can lead to anxiety in the child, which is normally where therapy becomes very important.

Stress leads to anxiety and furthermore it often leads to bad habits. There may be alcohol or drug dependence, chain smoking or comfort eating, amongst many others habits in an effort to switch off from the stress. Hand in hand with these go lifestyle-driven health complaints such as weight gain/loss, itchy skin lesions, chest infections and headaches and nervousness from withdrawal.

How acupuncture is used

I use acupuncture, the insertion of very fine needles at strategic points on the body, to support each stage of the treatment of stress which often involves:

  • Treating withdrawal from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, drugs and food
  • Treating sleep disturbance
  • Treating continuously for anxiety while lifestyle changes are being made in terms of hours worked, place of work, family dynamics etc.
  • Treating alongside counselling or CBT

I will normally see the patient no less than weekly and encourage them to commit to at least 8-10 sessions to achieve the cumulative benefits of acupuncture.

Acupuncture releases beta-endorphin into the bloodstream, an important pain-killing and mood-enhacing chemical. When we get enough of this endorphin release, in a setting where we feel relaxed (cue the dimly-lit room and candles) our bodies are much better equipped to make use of it. It is effective in dampening the effect of stress hormones in the body, particularly cortisol. Repeated sessions of acupuncture are proven to have a cumulative effect, but they should be regular and carried out at a time in the week that you can relax.

Acupuncture is relaxing for most people at the time that the needles are in, and often they will go home to a markedly better night’s sleep. Sleeping well is often the first step to change.

The research 

The following is a briefing of the research that supports the use of acupuncture to help stress and it’s associated symptoms, as published by the British Acupuncture Council on their website, where you can view the full research paper sources.

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry (Hui 2010; Hui 2009);
  • Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing AchE reactivity in the hippocampus (Kim 2011);
  • Reducing serum levels of corticosterone and the number of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells (Park 2010);
  • Regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states (Lee 2009; Cheng 2009; Zhou 2008);
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system (Arranz 2007). Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response;
  • Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions (Arranz 2007);
  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
  • Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry (Kim 2009).

If you are suffering from anxiety, stress or burn-out I would recommend acupuncture. It’s a highly unique technique for healing ourselves, naturally, with no side-effects or hangovers. If you are taking a prescription medication and want to try to reduce the dosage (with the input of your GP) you should consider acupuncture weekly.

I am an overseas member of the British Acupuncture Council. I hold clinics in Dublin Holistic Centre and Conscious Health in the centre of the city.

Call 085 153 7089 or email for appointments.



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