Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Let’s be honest, 2020 has dealt a big blow to our mental health. A CDC survey in late June this year has found that 41% of US adults are struggling with mental or behavioral health conditions, and increased substance abuse.
This year has sorely challenged our mental resilience, and the upcoming winter might be the darkest hour before dawn. In addition to experiencing pandemic fatigue, our days are getting shorter and nights getting darker; news resources are predicting that the pandemic mental health crisis will peak this winter, coupled with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
With the approaching cold weather, our already limited options of outdoor activities and socializing are being stripped away, consequently leading to more isolation. There is an urgent need to find alternative methods to boost our moods, and minimize the chance of long term psychological repercussion.
If you are familiar with using acupuncture to treat musculoskeletal pain, it is time to consider acupuncture as a tool to maintain your mental well-being. Combined with lifestyle coping strategies and/ or psychotherapy, this could be a great modality to cultivate mental resilience and lift your spirits. A great example is the Acupuncture for NHS Project in the UK. The project was established during the pandemic, to provide treatments to the overwhelmed NHS (National Health Service) healthcare workers, to help manage their physical pain and emotional stress. Results have been astounding so far. After only three sessions, 80% of the treated healthcare workers have reported improvements in their symptoms. Acupuncture has successfully helped them to manage exhaustion, anxiety, PTSD, sleep issues and neck/ lower back pain amongst many other complaints.
So how exactly can acupuncture help build our mental resilience?
Simply put, acupuncture works by calming the nervous system and regulating hormones to assist our body back to a state of “rest and digest”. From a calm and centered place, we can take back control, and better tackle daily stress factors. Almost like taking a chill pill to boost our mental resistance, without the risky side effects of pharmaceutical intervention.
Moreover, most mental disorders can physically manifest with multiple symptoms. For example, PTSD can result in complaints like chronic pain, substance abuse and sleep disorder etc. So a top-level down approach like acupuncture has the ability to tackle multi-symptom conditions simultaneously.
How can acupuncture help with PTSD?
PTSD is a type of anxiety. An emerging trend from this pandemic is the “Post-COVID Stress Disorder”. Many groups of the population have already met the DSM-5’s criteria of identifying PTSD, the US standard classification of mental disorders. These are people who have suffered serious symptoms of COVID-19, witnessed or learnt about people who suffered and died from COVID-19, and/ or were exposed to explicit details of the pandemic and its aftermath.
Let’s turn to military medicine for their experience in treating PTSD amongst veterans returning from traumatic events of war. Many veterans exhibit “Gulf War Syndrome” from war trauma, presenting as depression, anxiety or chronic pain (without other obvious physical manifestations) many months to years after initial injury. Acupuncture has been commonly used in the US military to help veterans combat PTSD. Dr. Richard Niemtzow developed Battlefield Acupuncture (BFA) in 2001 to help soldiers with pain, trauma and addiction on the battlefield. It has since been used in the US military with 80% efficacy rate from the first treatment.
Research has found that acupuncture triggers neurological responses of the autonomic nervous system, prefrontal cortex, and several limbic structures in the brain that are involved in PTSD pathophysiology. Hence giving it the ability to tackle this multi-symptom condition. One research also found that acupuncture plus moxibustion was superior to oral SSRI treatment for PTSD.
How can acupuncture help with generalized anxiety and depression such as SAD?
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States, with 18.1% of the adult population suffering from it every year. It is defined as a persistent and uncontrolled worry over matters such as health, money, work, family etc. People can experience physical symptoms such as palpitation, racing thoughts, sleep disturbance, appetite changes to the more disruptive panic attacks. The limbic system that regulates emotions and anxiety can be hyperactive in people experiencing anxiety.
On the other hand, depression is a persistent feeling of disinterest and despondency. In the case of SAD, the depressive state is related to seasonal patterns, with the majority of cases in the fall and winter. Researches suggest that SAD may be triggered by reduced sun exposure in the winter. Increased melatonin production, decreased Vitamin D production and serotonin activity, can all play a part in making people feel depressed.
Both anxious and depressive behaviors can share similar physical manifestation and indicate that they share neurobiological similarities involving the same parts of the brain. During an acupuncture session, the “analytical” brain is turned off and a sense of being is stimulated. Acupuncture essentially acts to decrease activity in the limbic system to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress. Acupuncture treatments also increase central nervous system hormones, including ACTH, beta-endorphins, serotonin, and noradrenaline. All of which play a part in the biochemistry of depression and anxiety.
How can acupuncture help with addiction and pain?
Chronic pain and addiction are two prevalent symptoms in people experiencing psychological distress. They either exacerbate with psychological distress, or vice versa. Acupuncture’s analgesic effect alleviates pain by stimulating production of endorphins, a natural opiate. It’s ability to elevate serum cortisol levels may also account for its anti-inflammatory effects.
A simple reason why acupuncture helps with addiction is because it imitates the gratification a patient experiences while on a substance. By boosting the feel-good sensation, the need to be dependent on a substance decreases.
The bottom line
We cannot control the weather or our environment, but we can control how we react and cope. Even though no single medical treatment is 100% effective, a combination of acupuncture, psychotherapy and self-care focused lifestyle can multiply the benefits of a single modality. All of which will help us get out of the depth with strengthened mental resilience and renewed hope.