Depression, anxiety and stress affect people of every age, race and social status. NIH data from 2017 showed that over 7% of all U.S. adults suffered at least one major depressive episode, and over 19% had anxiety disorders in the last year. Because Oriental Medicine seeks to address the individual as a whole, it has many methods for treating problems of emotional health. Rather than isolating symptoms as “physical,” “mental,” or “emotional,” we look at the whole person, making the connection between all body systems. Whether a patient has suffered from anxiety their whole life, is in the middle of a stressful event at home or work, is having an acute battle with post-partum depression, or any other situation where their emotional stability is being challenged, Oriental Medicine may provide immediate and lasting relief.

How does Western Medicine Treat Mental-Emotional Conditions?

Typically, conventional medicine recommends cognitive therapy, medications, or a combination thereof, if warranted. Therapy can be provided by psychologists, licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers, or even by psychiatrists. Psychiatry generally emphasizes the use of medications to treat mental-emotional conditions, and there are a wide range of them that can prescribed. SSRI’s are one category of medications that affect the use of serotonin (the neurotransmitter often associated with happiness), but there are other categories of drugs like SSNRI’s, MAOI’s, Tricyclics, and benzodiazepines, used for different kinds of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and even pain syndromes.

Medications can be extremely helpful, especially when a patient feels they cannot function in life because of their symptoms. However, the medications can come with a list of side-effects—among them weight gain, loss of libido, and a feeling of “flatness”—that many patients find are not a good trade-off for any well-being they provide. The other downfall to medications is that they can be difficult to discontinue even if the patient is ready for that step. In fact, many patients end up staying on medications not because they still feel the need, but because when they try to get off them, their symptoms get worse, and the withdrawal is difficult or even painful.

Oriental Medicine’s View of the Emotions

According to Chinese medical theory, when emotions are out of balance, they are deemed to be a cause of disease, not unlike how a virus or bacteria causes disease. Emotions can come from outside us, as in the case of traumatic events or stressful situations, or they can be internally generated and perpetuated such as worry or fear that is disproportionate to the cause. Either way, unbalanced emotions affect the body in various ways, and it is the goal of the Oriental Medicine practitioner to help restore them to a more harmonious state.

Oriental Medicine Treatment Strategies

Acupuncture is an important part of restoring emotional balance. It modulates the body’s stress response, balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, supports healthy adrenal function, and calms the spirit. The acupuncture treatment itself is extremely relaxing, and it helps give the body a calm place to “resource” in times of stress or anxiety. Currently, acupuncture is being used across the world to help soldiers with PTSD.

Chinese herbal medicine and nutritional supplements are safe and effective tools to use on a daily basis for addressing the roots of anxiety, depression and stress. There are many products on the market that tout the ability to reduce symptoms, but a good Chinese Medicine practitioner will always tailor herbal formulas to an individual’s specific case, which makes for more successful and lasting results.

Nutrition is critical when treating disorders of emotional health. The right foods can make a tremendous difference in how stressed or anxious one feels and can support a more balanced and stable mood. Simple dietary changes can make a big difference in the reduction of symptoms like panic, lethargy, irritability and instability.

Using Western and Eastern Medicine: Sometimes, patients are using antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, yet continue to experience symptoms. Oriental Medicine can be the missing link to help treat the root of the problem while the medication tones down the symptoms. We work with many patients who, with the help of their prescribing physicians, relied on Oriental Medicine to wean off antidepressants, or as a form of support while they went through the uncertain process of finding the right medication or dosage. Others use Oriental Medicine as their primary modality for helping them live emotionally balanced lives after having tried medications without success, or if prescription medications just aren’t right for them.

What Does the Research Say?

A 2007 pilot study on PTSD randomized patients to either acupuncture treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. Acupuncture provided positive treatment effects for PTSD with a decrease in symptoms by the end of their treatment. The positive effects were maintained at 3-month follow ups for both acupuncture and therapy(1). 

A 2015 meta-analysis on depression showed the effectiveness of acupuncture combined with medication. Using these combined therapies proved to have an early onset of action and were safe and well-tolerated when used together. Together, acupuncture with medication resulted in greater therapeutic effects than medication alone(2).

Acupuncture was found to be helpful in treating major depressive disorder in pregnant women(3).

One study done on students and staff at a large university found that acupuncture was successful in decreasing stress, and that the stress reduction lasted for at least 3 months after the completion of acupuncture treatment(4).

Regarding anxiety disorders, studies analyzed in a 2018 review found that acupuncture enhances patients’ response to prescription anti-anxiety medications and that it may also reduce medication side effects(5).

References

1. Hollifield et al., Acupuncture for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2007 Jun;195(6):504-13.

2. Chan et al., The Benefit of Combined Acupuncture and Antidepressant Medication for Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Affect Disord. 2015 May 1;176:106-17. Epub 2015 Jan 28.

3. Sniezek D and Siddiqui I, Acupuncture for Treating Anxiety and Depression in Women: A Clinical Systematic Review. Med Acupunct. 2013 Jun; 25(3): 164–172.

4. Schroeder et al., Effectiveness of Acupuncture Therapy on Stress in a Large Urban College Population. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 2017 Jun;10(3):165-170. Epub 2017 Jan 16.

5. Amorim et al., Acupuncture and Electroacupuncture for Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Research. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2018 May;31:31-37. Epub 2018 Jan 31.