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Let’s talk about… Anxiety and acupuncture

Let’s talk about… Anxiety and acupuncture

Blog Anxiety Acupuncture

Written by the Brtitish Acupuncture Council (BAcC) team

While occasional feelings of anxiety are a normal part of healthy life, for anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety, the extent, severity and experiences are entirely different.

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 is higher in women, people with chronic diseases and those from Euro/Anglo cultures.

In the current (pandemic) situation where a lot of people are still quite isolated, many continue to be concerned about catching or transmitting the virus, and large numbers face unemployment and reduced prospects, we expect to see higher levels of anxiety along with other mental health disorders. This has been confirmed by recent research, for 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.’

The commonest of the diagnosed categories of anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), is a long-term condition with feelings of anxiety across a wide range of situations and issues, 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. There are early indications of high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, an extreme form of anxiety, in people who were hospitalised with Covid-19.

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). Anxiety is one of the commonest reactions to stress, such that the two are often considered together, and treated in the same way.

As well as emotional symptoms such as worry, disturbed sleep, irritability and poor concentration, anxiety can cause physical symptoms , for example 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). Also, the symptoms of many physical conditions can become worse with stress, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and tension headaches, and back pain (Clinical Evidence 2007). People suffering from anxiety may be more prone to infections, due to the detrimental effect on the immune system. How acupuncture and related therapies may benefit the immune system will be the subject of a subsequent paper.

Treatments recognised as useful for anxiety disorders – and also for stress – 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).

What causes anxiety? Many factors may be involved, including genetic and physiological. The two physiological mechanisms for GAD suggested on the NHS website have both been established as ways in which acupuncture may work, not just for anxiety and mental health but also for dealing with chronic pain.

  • 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.

Many of the people who come for treatment with a traditional acupuncturist do so for mental health issues – this is the second most common area of illness 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’.

Why, then, has acupuncture been found to be successful in treating anxiety? In traditional acupuncture every patient is considered to be unique, which means the practitioner must look and listen very carefully to everything the patient says, in order to establish a diagnosis and find the correct keys to unlock the specific patterns of the patient’s symptoms. The aim is to identify and treat the imbalances which cause the anxiety, as well as treating the symptoms themselves.

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.

If you are considering acupuncture treatment, the most important thing you can do is to select a fully qualified practitioner – members of the BAcC have been trained to degree level, are fully insured, and are able to offer you the most effective treatment to help you reach your full potential in terms of health and wellbeing.

About the British Acupuncture Council: With just under 3,000 members, the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) is the UK’s largest professional body for traditional acupuncturists. Membership of the BAcC guarantees excellence in training, safe practice and professional conduct. To find a qualified traditional acupuncturist, contact the BAcC on 020 8735 0400 or visit

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