From the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) team

Occasional feelings of anxiety are a normal part of healthy life, yet for anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety, the extent, severity and experiences are entirely different and not considered normal.

For many people anxiety is a crippling affliction that blights their day-to-day living. In 2013, there were 8.2 million diagnosed cases of anxiety in the UK. The incidence has been shown to be higher in women, people with chronic diseases and those from Euro/Anglo cultures.

In this current pandemic we can expect to see higher levels of anxiety along with other mental health disorders than would normally be expected. Some of the reasons are due to the numbers of people who are still isolated and many who continue to be concerned about catching or transmitting the virus, also a large number of people now face unemployment and reduced life chances. This was the conclusion of a research paper looking at the mental health of the general public, healthcare workers and people with existing psychiatric conditions .

‘Disease itself multiplied by forced quarantine to combat COVID-19 applied by nationwide lockdowns can produce acute panic, anxiety, obsessive behaviours, hoarding, paranoia, and depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run.

Anxiety is one of the commonest reactions to stress. A factor that has led to anxiety and stress frequently being linked together. Up to half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress every year, and other common stress factors include alcohol, smoking, exams, pregnancy, divorce, moving, death in family, lifestyle, drugs, poor nutrition and unemployment (Health and Safety Executive 2011).

There are many diagnosed categories of anxiety. The commonest is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This is a long-term condition with feelings of anxiety across a wide range of situations and issues. Anxiety is felt even when there appears to be little or nothing to provoke it. Other anxiety disorders, for example phobias and social anxiety, are associated with extreme reactions to specific stressful situations. For people who have been hospitalised with COVID-19 there are early indications of high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, an extreme form of anxiety.

The effects of anxiety can cause both emotional and physical symptoms. Emotional symptoms may include: worry, disturbed sleep, irritability and poor concentration. Physical symptoms may include: sweating, nausea, diarrhoea, dry mouth, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, cold hands, muscle tension and aches, trembling and twitching (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; WHO 2007). There is evidence that the symptoms of physical conditions a patient may already have, can become worse with stress, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and tension headaches, and back pain (Clinical Evidence 2007). Anxiety can have a detrimental effect on the immune system, increasing the chances of a person catching an infection.

Treatments recognised as useful for anxiety disorders include psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and applied relaxation, and medication such as some antidepressants and benzodiazepines (NICE 2007). All the drug treatments have side effects, and many may cause withdrawal or discontinuation symptoms (British National Formulary 2009). Research is showing acupuncture to have comparable results to talking therapies and with quicker effect.

What causes anxiety? There are many influences that can cause anxiety, including genetic and physiological factors. The two physiological mechanisms for GAD suggested on the NHS website are,

  • overactivity in areas of the brain involved in emotions and behaviour
  • an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline, which are involved in the control and regulation of mood.

Both of these mechanisms can be effected positively by acupuncture treatment. Many patients express an improvement once acupuncture treatment starts.

Many people have acupuncture for mental health issues. It is the second most common reason to have this treatment after musculoskeletal conditions. According to the most up-to-date evidence acupuncture looks to be an effective treatment for anxiety, though more research is needed to confirm this. A summary of the research can be found in the document  ‘Acupuncture and anxiety: a review of the evidence’. (look out for this on future my blogs)

Why, then, has acupuncture been found to be successful in treating anxiety? In traditional acupuncture every patient is considered to be unique. The practitioner is skilled in looking, listening very carefully and examining the patient. This enables an individualised and comprehensive diagnosis to be obtained. The aim of diagnosis and treatment is to identify the root cause of the imbalances which are effecting the patients anxiety, and treat accordingly.

This whole ‘package’ – taking the patient’s individual story seriously and giving them time to tell it, trying to hone precisely the diagnosis, and selecting the optimum way to use the least number of needles to achieve the greatest effect – has been found to be very effective.

The modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. The body has the capacity to use these chemical adjustments to its own advantage, bringing harmony back to itself. It is the expert diagnosis that allows the correct needles to be used in the correct way that encourages the body to heal itself.

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