A Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Anxiety

Addressing Anxiety with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but when anxiety is striking repeatedly, it can start to affect a person’s ability to enjoy life and even function. This is when many people seek treatments like therapy, medication, or alternative approaches such as mindfulness.

The primary Western medicine treatments for anxiety are psychotherapy or psychotropic medications. Both are valid approaches. Psychotherapy in the form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy might even be necessary to see a true reduction in symptoms. Occasionally psychotropic medications will be unavoidable. However, many people are increasingly reluctant to use this approach.


Watch any television commercial about the latest and greatest psychotropic medication for anxiety and you will hear warnings about a litany of potential side effects. Some of these can be risky, intimidating, and may seem even worse than the anxiety itself. Even if you are not concerned about side effects, you might prefer a more natural and holistic approach to anxiety management.

If you have not yet read my article on Chinese medicine and its benefits for mind-body wellness, you may want to check it out. To recap, research shows that traditional Chinese approaches- including acupuncture- have real benefits for wellness and can be used to treat a variety of ailments. Anxiety is just one among them and we are excited to present you with the research on it!

treating anxiety with acupuncture makes sense

As noted, psychotherapy and medications are the most common approaches for treating anxiety. Medications may be less than desirable due to their potential side effects. Psychotherapy is generally found to be effective, but results can take time and sometimes people need immediate relief. This is where the use of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture may become a helpful approach.

As covered in a previous article, acupuncture is often misunderstood. Traditional Chinese physicians were not using acupuncture to alter a non-physical energy in the body, they were using it to target neurovascular nodes, which could stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and elicit the body’s natural healing responses. This approach targets the core cause of anxiety symptoms and restores homeostasis.

Modern life is full of ongoing, vague stressors like finances, work projects, and overly busy schedules, all of which can trigger our sympathetic nervous system and the “fight or flight” stress response. Because these chronic stressors don’t go away, the parasympathetic nervous system never gets triggered, and we cannot get back to the “rest and digest” of homeostasis. We stay in this state of heightened alert, stress hormones like cortisol continue to be produced, and after awhile the body becomes worn out. Eventually, the stress we experience in our body turns into anxiety in the mind.

Given how chronic stress operates in the body, it makes sense that acupuncture would be helpful. If the parasympathetic system needs to do its job of restoring homeostasis and a sense of calm throughout the body and mind, then stimulating it with acupuncture would be a good treatment option.

Being around people in social circumstances can be anxiety inducing if you suffer from social anxiety.

Being around people in social circumstances can be anxiety inducing if you suffer from social anxiety.

Evidence for Acupuncture as Anxiety Treatment

A recent study from Amorim and colleagues (2018) conducted a systematic search for all the recent research on the use of acupuncture for anxiety. While the authors found that there were over 1000 research articles published in the last 10 years, the authors pared these down to 13 studies (that met specific criteria) for further consideration. We will highlight here a few of their findings.

Interestingly, not all of the studies used traditional acupuncture. Some used auricular (ear) acupuncture and one used electroacupuncture. Targeted acupoints included: relaxation, shenmen, lung, kidney, subcortex, and the adrenal glands. All 13 studies showed some decrease in anxiety among treatment groups, compared to control groups. Such results were consistent across countries and cultures.

As with most mental health research, more studies are needed to further understand all the benefits that acupuncture may have for anxiety, the mechanisms by which it works, and the exact methods to elicit the best outcomes. In the meantime, acupuncture appears a safe and effective option to treat anxiety. Most people will find it helpful as an adjunctive approach, to augment other approaches.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the proven benefits, if you are looking for treatment options to reduce and manage your anxiety, consider using acupuncture. Acupuncture is just one of the many tools we have to treat the whole person, mind and body and one that can be added to a comprehensive treatment plan for anxiety.