Acupuncture, Anxiety and Depression

Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes the mind and body interacting as one, meaning that emotions have a physiological effect on the body and that physiology also has an effect on the emotions. Five emotions are represented by the five elements of Chinese medicine:

  • Wood (anger)
  • Fire (joy)
  • Earth (worry)
  • Metal (grief)
  • Water (fear)

In addition to these five basic categories of emotions, there is a physiological categorization of body types and constitutional health types, as well as a grouping of personality traits that go along with the five elements. Consideration of all of these systems makes the practice of Chinese medicine a comprehensive holistic system of health care for an individual and not simply a symptom-based treatment.


Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses worldwide. Many people suffer some form of anxiety occasionally but others cannot manage this natural response to a stressful situation. With an anxiety disorder, when a person experiences a highly stressful or threatening scenario, the mind can be overwhelmed and fail to develop ways of coping.

Although the symptoms can be as manageable as an unsettling or disturbing feeling in the pit of the stomach, some suffer much worse. Anxiety can trigger some of the following responses:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • repetitive negative thoughts
  • behavioral changes such as uncharacteristic aggression or restlessness
  • fear, dread or a sense of panic

There are a variety of causes of anxiety; all have different treatments. An individual’s personality, behavior, or thinking style can cause them to be more susceptible to anxiety. Research has proven that there can also be a hereditary component. Biochemical factors such as a chemical imbalance in the brain also has been proven to cause anxiety.

Traditional Chinese medicine primarily relates anxiety to an imbalance of the heart and kidney although different constitutional tendencies can bring other elemental relationships into play influencing how anxiety manifests. Fire represents the heart and joy according to the five elements. The diagnosis is that too much heat in the heart will imbalance the interaction with the kidney (represented as water and fear). This will result in the water organ failing to contain the fire organ rising up to disturb the mind thus, leading to anxiety. Acupuncture on points affecting the heart, kidney and spleen as well as auricular (ear) points are often used to treat anxiety.

In a comprehensive literature review appearing in a recent edition of CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, it was proved that acupuncture is comparable to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which psychologists commonly use to treat anxiety (Errington-Evans, 2011). Another study published in the Journal of Endocrinology in March 2013 discovered stress hormones were lower in rats after receiving electric acupuncture (Eshkevari, Permaul and Mulroney, 2013).


It is estimated that approximately one in five people will experience clinical depression at least once in their lifetime. Although it is natural to feel sad and down at times, especially after experiencing loss, these slight effects can be managed with gradual lifestyle adjustments. Clinical depression, however, refers to a long-lasting and intense emotional, physical and cognitive state that greatly affects day-to-day life. Symptoms include:

  • lack of interest in life and in normally pleasurable activities
  • obsessive negative thoughts and worrying about the future
  • irritability, agitation and exhaustion
  • changes in sleeping patterns (too much or too little)
  • hopelessness (feeling trapped or suicidal)

The causes of depression are known to be similar to the causes of anxiety. In Western medicine it is traditionally treated with antidepressant medication, psychological methods or a combination of both. Today it is becoming common to treat these conditions with a combination of Western and complementary medicine techniques such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapies, supplements, bio-feedback, hypnotherapy, yoga, meditation, dietary, and exercise and lifestyle changes.

Depression is considered to be a problem with circulating Qi around your body, according to traditional Chinese beliefs. The main organ responsible for circulating Qi is recognized as the liver with the heart and spleen playing supporting roles. The most common acupuncture treatment used to increase the flow of Qi is known as The Four Gates. This involves stimulating source points on both hands between the thumb and index finger and both feet between the big toe and second toe. Once the energy circuits of the body are more open, other points are chosen to support the individual’s specific pattern.

Anxiety and depression remain two of the most common mental disorders worldwide. As further research continues, acupuncture and other forms of complementary therapies are gradually being proved to be legitimate treatments for anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses. Varying our lifestyles by trying alternative therapies, including exercise, yoga and meditation are perhaps just as important for our health. It is important, however, to always get a second opinion and consult a doctor any time complementary therapies are tried. Mental illness is a serious condition that demands accurate diagnosis and accompanying psychological methods such as long-term counseling. Sometimes prescription medications are recommended, depending on the severity of the condition.

Anita Alexandra, L.Ac., CH is an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist with 17+ years of experience. She practices at Chiropractic Health and Acupuncture, 619 Main Street, Frisco. (970)668-3299.

Leave a Reply