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Acupuncture for stress?

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

I suspect COVID-19 might be reaching for a top spot when this survey is re-done.

Before studying Chinese Medicine I had very little awareness of my body. How it worked. My learning isn't just about acupuncture, it is about broadening my understanding of everything to do with being human.

And stress is all-pervasive it is a really important subject. In acute moments it can be useful. It can save our lives. It can happen during the happiest of moments, like planning a wedding, or from the worst moments such as death of loved one.

The current top five reasons for being stressed in Britain are:

  1. Death of a spouse, relative or friend

  2. Imprisonment

  3. Fire or flooding of home

  4. Chronic illness

  5. Being fired

And if stress is an every day part of your life, you need to understand how this will affect your overall health. Because if I look at the fourth top reason for stress; chronic illness it can be a never-ending cycle as you will see below. Chronic stress affects our immunity, thus opening us up to negative affects on almost all functional measures of the immune system. Thus making us more ill.

When you live with stress, my first question is "do you know what causes your stress"? Because without addressing the root cause then a lot of these techniques below will only give you a short-term alleviation of your signs and symptoms..

Making change can be really hard. And some situations are just not possible to change, but being aware of what causes you stress gives you tools.

Today's blog post will look at how acupuncture might help you with stress. But it also examines six other therapies you might want to look at.

If you have any questions at all. Please get in touch.

Love from Andrea


What stress does to the body

These two pictures highlight the instantaneous reaction that happens when we perceive stress.

In a moment of stress (which can be different for everyone) the amygdala will send a distress signal to the hypothalamus. In turn, the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands which release epinephrine. This allows:

  • our hearts to beat faster

  • pulse and blood pressure go up

  • we breath more rapidly to provide our body with additional oxygen

  • we get a release of glucose for energy

If the hypothalamus continues to perceive something as stressful it will then release the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone.

This sends a further signal to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This allows us to

  • release more glucose for energy

  • it suppresses the digestive, reproductive and immune system

These reactions happen before we are even aware. How amazing is our body?

But what do these reactions have to our physical body? Do you notice any of these changes when you are stressed?

  • Acne

  • Headaches

  • Body tension

  • Upset stomach

  • Reduced libido

  • Changes to your mental health

  • Get ill easier?

All of these could be linked to your bodies response to stress, and below I will look at the mechanism behind chronic stress.


Chronically stressed

But what happens when we are chronically stressed? It will start to have a detrimental impact on all of the immune system. It will affect our digestion. It will affect our weight. It will affect our reproduction. It will affect our blood vessels.

studies have convincingly established that stressful experiences alter features of the immune response as well as confer vulnerability to adverse medical outcomes that are either mediated by or resisted by the immune system

Stress therefore might contribute to the course of diseases involving excessive nonspecific inflammation (e.g., multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, coronary heart disease) and thereby increase risk for excess morbidity and mortality

When I talk about chronic stress we are not looking at the time-limited or brief moments of stress. The stressful office presentation you have to give. Or that "best day of your life" but is really stressful leading up to it.

I am talking about chronic stress that pervades a persons life. They neither know when or if it will end. It may change them as a person.

That doesn't mean your stress (if it is not that) is not important. It is.


How can I help manage my stress?

Unfortunately, from WHO guidance, there is not much that biomedicine can do for managing signs and symptoms.

They suggest:

  • sleep hygiene for insomnia (very low quality of evidence)

  • breathing into a paper bag (very low quality of evidence)

  • CBT and SSRIs (low quality evidence)

  • psychological interventions (moderate quality of evidence)

And so, with that in mind, could we look at seven alternatives? Could you make a choice as to how you want to cope with stress with no (or very minimal) side effects?


Acupuncture for stress

In a randomised controlled pilot study conducted in 2020 they found that

The stress level of the participants was high at baseline (mean PSQ-20 score 75.5, SD = 8.2). Effect sizes (ES) at T1 showed that verum and sham acupuncture were superior to the waiting condition in reducing stress

Acupuncture doesn't have a label for stress. Your stress is individual to you. You will have your own signs and symptoms.

Your practitioner would want to know how your stress manifests and will help work through those.

Below are five examples of how acupuncture may see stress and treatment accordingly. You may be one of these. You may be all of them. But you will probably see a clearer one that 'feels' more like you.

Water: the emotion relating to the Water element, in Chinese medicine, is fear. So, how does this show up in stress? This may look like:

  • nervous or afraid

  • sense of dread

  • avoiding situations that are troubling you

  • sexual problems such as lack of libido or not enjoying sex

  • loss of hair

Earth: the Earth element relates to worry. This may look like:

  • feeling over-burdened

  • your thoughts are racing

  • worried about your health

  • constantly worrying

  • biting your nails

  • picking at your skin

  • unable to concentrate

  • eating too much or too little

  • muscle tension

  • tired all the time

  • grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw

  • indigestion or heartburn

  • constipation or diarrhoea

  • feeling sick, dizzy or fainting

Metal: this emotion is grief and the signs and symptoms may look like:

  • being tearful or crying

  • shallow breathing or hyperventilating

  • propensity to catch a cold

  • skin irritation or a rash

Wood: the Wood element relates to anger, however in the context of stress it will be worrying; you will l be tense and probably a perfectionist. Signs and symptoms may be:

  • irritability, aggressive, impatient, wound up

  • finding it hard to make decisions

  • snapping at people

  • restless, like you cannot sit still

  • blurred eyesight or sore eyes

  • having nightmares

  • headaches

Fire: whilst the Fire element emotion is joy, in stress this may look more like depression. Other signs and symptoms might be:

  • anxiety

  • unable to enjoy yourself

  • depression

  • uninterested in life

  • being tearful or crying

  • shallow breathing or hyperventilating

  • panic attack

  • chest pain

  • high blood pressure

  • indigestion or heart burn

  • dizzy or fainting

  • problems getting to sleep or staying asleep

When you meet with your acupuncturist (or you can book a free discovery call with me here) talk about how your stress looks for you. Be specific. Be honest.

It will really help with diagnosis.

Other than acupuncture you might want to try traditional Chinese exercises?


Tai Chi & Qi Gong for stress

Tai Chi and Qi Gong are traditional Chinese exercises which may help you alleviate some of the symptoms of stress. They are widely practiced for their health benefits, which are low-impact exercises that are suitable for a diverse patient population.

In a paper written in 2014 they found

Evidence from randomized controlled trials suggests that Tai Chi and Qigong may be effective in reducing depressive symptoms, stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances.

If you would like to look at practising Qi Gong then I can suggest:

  • Peter Deadman is a practitioner of Qi Gong and you can see his YouTube channel here

  • If you would like someone local to practice with face to face then I can highly recommend Iga at Heaven and Earth. She is based in Royston, Hertfordshire.

  • Alternatively another online practice is with Katie Brindle at Hayo'u Fit which offers Qi Gong classes


Eco-therapy for stress

Did you know that spending time in a green space or bringing nature into your everyday life, can help with stress? This could look like:

If you are local to Hertfordshire then can I suggest two amazing people that I think will be really beneficial for you.

Lucie at Rooted Wild offers flower circles which are a space to connect with nature. She runs them in Hitchin and I highly recommend joining one, even if you don't feel stressed.

Sam is a coach and certified forest therapy guide. She owns Natural Edge Coaching and part of her offering is forest therapy. Forest therapy is used for physical, social and mental wellbeing and has been shown to help with:

  • reduces elevated blood pressure

  • alleviates stress

  • reduces anxiety

  • boosts immune system

She has a free nature connection course starting on the 9th September, for 6 weeks. It will be held in Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead and is for people aged 18 years plus, living in Dacorum and living with anxiety or mental health conditions. For more details, click here.


Emotional Freedom Technique for stress

EFT uses the Chinese medicine principles but instead of using needles, it requires tapping on the meridians or acupuncture points.

Download PDF • 2.64MB

To start you use four fingers to tap the side of your hand (the karate chop) whilst you repeat a setup statement. This could be "Even though I feel this stress, I accept how I feel".

You repeat the statement three times and then follow the remaining eight points, tapping them 5 to 7 times. The order is

  1. Eyebrow Point (EB) Where the eyebrows begin, closest to the bridge of the nose.

  2. Side of Eye (SE) On the bone directly along the outside of either eye.

  3. Under Eye (UE) On the bone directly under either eye.

  4. Under Nose (UN) The area directly beneath the nose and above the upper lip.

  5. Chin Point (CP) This is the area just below your bottom lip and above the chin, right in the crease.

  6. Collarbone Point (CB) Starting from where your collar bones meet in the centre, go down an inch and out an inch on either side.

  7. Under Arm (UA) On your side, about four inches beneath the armpit.

  8. Top of Head (TH) Directly on the crown of your head.

There are, to date, at least 100 studies to show how effective tapping (or EFT) can be as a self-help therapeutic method and in a paper written in 2019 they found

"participants experienced significant decreases in pain, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Physiological indicators of health such as RHR, BP, and cortisol also significantly decreased, indicating improvement. Happiness levels increased as did immune system function"

I don't know of anyone local to me (so please let me know of anyone), however there are lots of videos to help you get started.


Breathwork for stress

When we look at what happens with the body when it experiences stress, we know that breath rate can increase.

Richie Bostock in his book Exhale writes about Coherent Breathing for creating a healthy variation between heartbeats.

  • Start either lying down or seated

  • Inhale for 6 seconds

  • Exhale for 6 seconds

  • Repeat for 3 minutes

  • If 6 seconds feels too long then reduce it to 4 or 5 seconds and gradually build up to 6 seconds

  • For children under 10 years old, try 4 seconds in and out

Breathwork has also been recommended by the NHS as a tool for managing stress.


Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress

MBSR consists of multiple forms of mindfulness practice, including formal and informal meditation practice.

With repeated practice, mindfulness allows the participant to develop the ability to calmly step back from thoughts and feelings during stressful situations, rather than engaging in anxious worry or other negative-thinking patterns that might otherwise escalate a cycle of stress reactivity and contribute to heightened emotional distress.

MBSR may improve

  • patients‘ psychosocial adjustment to cancer and offer psychological and health benefits to cancer patients

  • it increases natural killer cells activity

  • it can control severe headaches

  • it helps reduce stress in patients with aneurismal haemorrhage

  • effective for anxiety and depression in individuals and groups


Yoga for stress

Yoga is a practice of movement and breathwork, which people are often familiar with. But did you know that yoga can be used to help manage stress?

In a study conducted in 2015 they found that:

yoga practice leads to better regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, as well as a decrease in depressive and anxious symptoms in a range of populations

They also found that:

  • Yoga decreases blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol and cytokine expression.

  • Yoga associated with metabolic changes in the brain.

  • Influence sympathetic nervous system, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis regulation.

My go-to yoga teacher is Carly at Zen Flow Yoga. Carly is based in Letchworth Garden City but was quick to pivot during the pandemic and started both online classes and also a monthly paid subscription, which allows you to practice when you wish.

She is also completing her 580 hour Yoga Therapy Diploma which will allow her to work deeply with people with physical and mental health conditions and help them with their healing journey.

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