Every time something awful happens in the world, it makes its way into my clinic. This week Roe v Wade was overturned and it’s been the topic of every patient’s mind and heart. I often hear the words ‘you’re not my therapist but….’ while my patients explain to me their emotional or spiritual troubles. This happens so often that it’s now one of the main things I treat in my clinic - emotional pain, upset and trauma, and it’s also why I’ve become a transformational Jungian Life Coach, so that I can truly help you in the entire process of body, mind and spirit. You might think heading to an acupuncturist to deal with your break up doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the truth is, emotional pain goes far beyond just the mind, it affects our body and our spirit, and Chinese medicine is especially equipped to bridge between these three aspects of our lives: body - mind - spirit. Feelings are called feelings for a reason - they are literally felt in the body, actual sensations that we feel caused by neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes - it can be tingling, numbness, tension, heat, the list goes on, but every time we have an emotional reaction, before it came a physical reaction. The world we currently live in is rife with reasons to be upset - wars that are never ending, political upheaval, an economic system on the brink of collapse, domestic terrorism, pain and strife is parmount every time we turn on the television or open up TikTok, and that doesn’t even include our personal life’s ups and downs.
It’s incredibly important that during times of stress, change or upset we find support, you may get that from friends and family, a therapist, the gym, and yes, an acupuncturist. Body work can be profound to help the mental and emotional healing process. We have to help the body process and move the energy (and neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes) that is associated with emotional responses so that we can feel clear and like ourselves again, so that we can move forward and make choices out of response instead of reaction. If you’re still wondering ‘how on earth can acupuncture really help me with my emotions?’ let’s dive right in…
#1 - Acupuncture changes your brainwaves to take you out of a stress state and into a deep relaxation state
The type of brainwaves you experience are related to different levels of stress and relaxation. A beta brainwave state is our typical thinking, learning and stress state - we spend quite a bit of time here day in and day out which is why it’s important to make space to drop down into more relaxed states at the end of the day. Acupuncture treatments decrease beta waves and increase the alpha wave state, there is also evidence that alpha waves can become synchronized during acupuncture treatment; pointing to the role of acupuncture’s effect on the autonomic nervous system (Cabıoğlu, M., 2016). We need to experience alpha, theta and delta states during each day because this is the time that our bodies rest, rejuvenate and repair themselves. Delta wave is one of the deepest brain wave states and we mostly experience this state in deep dreamless sleep, but we can’t get there without going through alpha and theta first. I often tell patients that receiving acupuncture is like getting a ‘free meditation.’ Your brain acts similarly while receiving acupuncture as it does while meditating, and the good news is - you don’t have to try to do anything, you can just receive and let it happen!
#2 - Acupuncture can help you access and clear somatic memory - emotions stored in your physical body.
Sometimes when we experience great pain, trauma or upset in our lives, our body remembers or stores that memory and our mind might forget that memory, this is called our somatic memory - it’s the memory of the body. Some people experience a release of emotion when receiving acupuncture, a needle may go in and tears come right out, not because of pain but because it helps unlock and release stored emotion. It might not seem like a good thing at first glance, but it’s a great thing! We need to release emotion from the body, because stored and repressed emotion actually contributes to physical health problems like high blood pressure, decreased immune function and pain. Sometimes we will have a new awareness, or an old memory will come back to us after an acupuncture treatment, all signs we are starting to truly process and release old pain that the body has held onto, coveted to protect us. With an acupuncture treatment we start to feel more clear, stronger, more able and this allows us the chance to start to unearth old issues we’re ready to let go of.
Previous studies have shown that acupuncture might function as a somatosensory-guided mind–body therapy (Wang et al., 2007; Napadow et al., 2009) and could treat both pain and psychological diseases at once. In addition, recent advances in the effectiveness and the neurobiological pathways on acupuncture for chronic pain with psychological disorders have substantially increased people’s awareness about the therapeutic use of acupuncture.
#3 - Acupuncture releases dopamine, serotonin and other awesome happy brain chemicals
The effect acupuncture has on the body, physiologically speaking, is producing an increased level of beneficial chemicals in the brain and body including endogenous opioids, serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline which all help the body reach a relaxed state and decrease pain. (Kim, Seung-Nam et al. 2011). We need these types of neurotransmitters to experience peace, calm, joy, and it’s pretty profound, yet not a surprise to any seasoned acupuncturist that the research concurs that acupuncture helps release these ‘happy’ brain chemicals. While acupuncture might not be a replacement for an SSRI, it can surely be beneficial during times of stress, sadness, loss and change.
#4 - Acupuncture activates your parasympathetic nervous system and downregulates your sympathetic nervous system
Our sympathetic nervous system is our ‘fight or flight’ system, we may also freeze or fawn as responses from this system. It’s activated by our perception of stress or danger, and while it used to be reserved to help us run away from imminent danger like big cats, today it’s often activated by something as simple as driving, getting a nasty email from your boss or even watching the news. We live in a society with an overactive sympathetic nervous system response, so anything we can do to help us drop out of that into a parasympathetic state - where we can rest, rejuvenate and relax, is going to be very beneficial.
Other studies verify these findings. Holly Middlekauff, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA, and a team of investigators presented their research at the American Heart Association’s 2001 Scientific Sessions conference, which showed that acupuncture can block sympathetic nerve activity. Twenty-two advanced heart failure patients (both men and women, average age 43) were used in the study. Blood pressure, heart rate and sympathetic nerve activity – which regulate a person’s heartbeat and is also responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response – were measured in each patient immediately after subjecting them to four minutes of anxiety-producing situations. Results showed that sympathetic nervous system activity increased approximately 25 percent as a result of the mental stress.
#5 - Acupuncture can help you gain more insight & awareness to the issues that are troubling you
One of the ways an acupuncturist looks at emotional pain is through the lens of the five spirits and the five elements. These give us a unique understanding of the process and progression of emotional states. For instance, water creates wood, the emotion of water is fear and anger for wood, this means that before every anger reaction is a precipitating fear. By understanding these relationships we gain more awareness and insight as to what’s really underneath the emotions we are experiencing, especially if they aren’t appropriate for the given circumstances, like being angry for no reason, or crying at the drop of a hat. An acupuncturist who is adept at addressing mental health will have a keen understanding of these relationships and can help coach you towards uncovering this type of awareness. Awareness is the first step in change, it might not seem like much, but the acknowledgment and realizations we have through healing are a huge part of the process for taking what’s going on for us and turning it into a stepping stone instead of a brick pile we collapse under.
#6 - Chinese herbal formulas can be customized for your specific type of emotional pain
What I love about Chinese medicine in general is how customizable it is, it’s never a one size fits all approach. Herbal formulas are no different. Where western medicine might say serotonin depletion is a cause for depression, Chinese medicine will have an exponentially longer list of possible diagnoses for the same depression. This pinpoints down not just the fact you feel depressed but how it plays out and any other accompanying symptoms - is it depression with sleeping a lot? With apathy? With anger outbursts? With anxiety? Everyone presents a little bit differently and our herbal formulas are specifically tailored for every possible presentation, not one pill to cure all.
I imagine you’re saying ‘tell me the formula Dr. Kim!’ but unfortunately I don’t believe it to be ethical for me to give you a list of formulas to self prescribe and diagnose, it’s a complex medicine and working with a practitioner is truly the best, most effective and most cost effective way for you to use this medicine.
#7 - If you experience emotional issues related to chronic pain, acupuncture is proven to help
Physical pain is inextricably linked to emotional pain, whether we grieve the loss of being able to move and function like we used to, or are overwhelmed by the fear of future pain or increases in pain, it’s all connected. When we suffer from conditions that have no viable treatments or cures, we are faced with not only mortality, but continued pain and suffering - what is there to do? One of the biggest ways we can continue to heal when we are faced with the inability to be cured - is to change our perspective. Changing our perspective to our pain helps actually improve our quality of life, it’s how some people can be in pain 24/7 yet seem somewhat ‘ok’ when you speak with them about it, because through the right types of healing work, a perspective shift and continued work we can shift our experience of pain. This perspective shift and subsequent positive effect on pain experience and quality of life has been measurable in scientific studies of acupuncture as well.
In a German observational study, 736 patients with hip or knee osteoarthritis were treated with 6–15 sessions of acupuncture. After treatment, patients reported less pain and lower depression scores. All changes were statistically highly significant (P < 0.001) (Linde et al., 2006). A pragmatic study, which involved 96 patients with fibromyalgia, showed that significant reductions in pain (measured with the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire) and negative psychological perceptions—pain catastrophizing have been documented at the end of acupuncture treatment (once a week for 8 weeks). (Di Carlo et al., 2020).
Bonus - Acupuncture is incredibly safe - even for kids and can help supplement your therapy and / or medication
One of the best things about acupuncture is that it is virtually risk-free. The rate of negative side effects for acupuncture is about 2% and risks include bruising at the needle site, discomfort with needling, fainting. Extremely rare complications include lung puncture and infection, but these are exceedingly rare especially when receiving a treatment from a licensed acupuncturist. Most medications have side effect rates over 10% and plenty of interactions as well, acupuncture doesn’t come close to this. Acupuncture is safe for patients of literally any age, and can be a great supplement to your regimen of therapy, prescription medicine and other healing treatments.
Is acupuncture right for you? The best way to find out is by booking a treatment and finding out first hand. It’s always important to find a practitioner that is competent, licensed and experienced in whatever issues you’re wanting to work on, so don’t be shy about shopping around. If you’re going to therapy but finding something is lacking, I would suggest giving some type of somatic body work a try, acupuncture is a great option for this type of work. I think the healing process is multifaceted and requires a team, not just one guide, it’s about creating a new community and support for what you’re going through. Finding a practitioner who has compassion, intuition and ability is paramount, but also find someone who has the ability to push through your resistance, this might mean you don’t like them all the time, but they help you get to where you’re going.
Times are f*cking nuts right now. It’s not easy and it certainly isn’t fun. Healing work doesn’t make our problems go away, it definitely doesn’t make the problems of the world go away, but it can help us come back to center, even if it’s just for the amount of time we’re on the table. Healing work can help us find healthier coping mechanisms and help us find more peace in the midst of absolute chaos. The time for you to do this work is now, not some day down the line.
I find that what it really is, is about helping us connect back with our true self, the self we came here to be that got pushed away, buried and shunned when we were children or through traumatic experiences. That dissonance with being in the world as a facade of who you really are wrestling with the inner knowing that we aren’t being that true self is what creates so much suffering deep in our soul.
Take one step today, one step tomorrow and so forth, you don’t have to heal overnight, or ever if you choose to, but there is a choice, and it’s yours to make.
Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc is the Owner and Acupuncturist at Lion's Heart Wellness, the San Francisco Bay Area and Marin's #1 Cosmetic Acupuncturist and #1 Holistic Healer.
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