Acupuncture: A Treatment for Stressful Times
Acupuncture, at its core, is a holistically-informed practice. The word "holistic", as defined by the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, is “the art and science of healing that addresses the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.” Not only is holistic medicine intended to treat various health conditions, but an emphasis on prevention and support of the overall wellness and vibrancy of a person is greatly underscored. As you may already gather, acupuncture is a modality within the scope of East Asian Medicine (EAM) that inherently acknowledges the mind-body connection.
Being a holistic medicine allows acupuncture to address the various levels of imbalance an individual may be experiencing, in mind and body. It’s truly one of the loveliest features of this modality. Most of us can agree that when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it isn’t only a matter of what’s happening in the mind, but it’s potentially affecting your sleep, your digestion, your level of physical pain, your mood, your appearance, your libido, and the list goes on. This is the perfect illustration of how one condition may have a cascade-like effect on the total system and why holistic medicine is so important to utilize when one is attempting to move into the ideal state of balance. What’s interesting for us acupuncturists are that many times a patient comes in with a physical complaint they haven’t even considered being related to other symptoms they’re having, and once that symptom begins to regulate, others tend to follow suit, often including those of the mental-emotional variety.
The Stress Response
At its best, the organization of a human being is meant to be in a state of homeostasis. As defined by Merriam-Webster, “homeostasis is a relatively stable state of equilibrium or tendency towards such a state.” In EAM, it is commonly acknowledged that no unwelcome physical or mental symptoms arise when one is in homeostasis; it is the supreme sign of health. Although a level of wellness to aspire to, most of us are bumping up against enough things to knock us out of balance on a regular basis, and thus, we end up exhibiting symptoms attributed to these triggers.
Let’s consider how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) works under stress. The sympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for the “fight, flight or freeze response,” in which a variety of stimulating hormones are secreted in the body, including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Although necessary in times of danger, our bodies have become accustomed to the release of these stress hormones under daily living conditions. Career, school, finances, kids, marriage, relationships, health, loss, pandemic, etc. may all trigger chemical responses that at one time were reserved only for imminent risk of death – now we’ve become accustomed to an onslaught of frequent stress, leading to deficits in our mental, emotional and physical health.
The lesser-known neuroendocrine system is another frontline responder to any hint of imbalance in the body. When faced with perceived danger, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis works to move the body back towards a level of homeostasis. The HPA axis attempts to regulate physiological stress by utilizing the release of several hormones to be delivered to multiple organs and parts of the brain that target emotion and stress control, but with sustained activation can have deleterious effects on the physical and mental states.
A Healing Response
Much research is available to validate the mechanisms by which acupuncture helps with stress-related health concerns. In contrast to the sympathetic branch of the ANS is the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) branch that acupuncture has been shown to successfully activate. When we reflect on the goal to guide the body back into balance for ideal health, it only makes sense that we would want to stimulate the relaxing counterpart to the “fight-flight-freeze" action of the ANS. And we can begin to appreciate how acupuncture may work to regulate the undesirable side effects of stress, and thereby improve mental and emotional states.
Studies have shown acupuncture to increase serotonin, enkephalins and other "feel-good" chemicals that lead to improved mood and other positive physiological effects. Acupuncture balances other systems and chemicals within the body (including regulating hormones stimulated by the HPA axis response), helping to reduce manifestations of stress while increasing positive benefits in mind and body.
Delivery of Acupuncture
Acupuncture has become an incredibly accessible service in our modern world. A great number of practitioners work in private or group practices, many others in hospital settings and various clinical facilities, and community treatment centers. The organization Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) provides disaster relief acupuncture treatments all over the world, mainly targeting mental health concerns in the face of major adversity. What’s brilliant about acupuncture is that it can be delivered in nearly any environment – and quickly. Although useful at times, an acupuncturist doesn’t need to discuss your entire history or find the underlying cause of an emotional issue to deliver immediately effective treatments. AWB practitioners perform ear acupuncture (also known as “auricular acupuncture”) to mass numbers of individuals so they may help many people as quickly as possible with their efficacious trauma protocols. The majority of acupuncturists are familiar with AWB protocols and are able to deliver the same treatments (and more) in their practice settings.
Hope for the Present and Future
The human mind-body is an incredibly complex landscape. Science is just beginning to uncover what has been time-tested by practitioners for thousands of years: the power of acupuncture to provide deeply effective and meaningful results that address the effects of stress, in all of its various manifestations. This article is the beginning of a conversation I hope will continue to spread amongst the general public, practicing medical professionals and researchers alike. We live in a time where stress reduction is essential to our quality of life, and the more tools we have to support one another, the better outcomes we may anticipate for ourselves, our loved ones and the world at large.
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