My relationship with needles has always been a little wonky. I only recently — at 30 years old — overcame my fear of getting my blood drawn, I nearly passed out when I got my one-and-only 10-minute tattoo, and I’m not necessarily a huge fan of shots (the medical kind, of course). So when I was offered the opportunity to try acupuncture for the first time for my anxiety, I was surprisingly unphased.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of what acupuncture could actually do for your mind and body. The idea of needles being poked into certain parts of your body to help release tension can sound like a horror film when described out loud; however, after trying acupuncture for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I can personally tell you that it was the complete opposite. Instead, this approach allowed me to face my anxiety head-on.
After having the opportunity to try acupuncture for the first time, I wanted to disclose exactly what the experience was like. To help explain the process of acupuncture, I connected with licensed and NCCAOM certified Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine and co-founder of NYC-based modern acupuncture studio WTHN, Dr. Shari Auth, to unearth the history and procedure of this ancient technique. So without further ado, this is what it’s like to get acupuncture for anxiety for the first time.
What is acupuncture?
Before we jump into the actual experience, it’s best to explore what the practice of acupuncture actually is and how it can be used for stress and anxiety.
According to Mayo Clinic, acupuncture is a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that uses hair-thin needles to pinpoint specific areas on the body to treat pain or tension the body may be experiencing at that time. The needles are used to stimulate small areas of nerves, muscles, and connective tissues to relieve discomfort by increasing the body’s endorphins and putting it in a more relaxed state. Acupuncture has been known to help with migraines, depression, insomnia, anxiety, and even has the ability to improve the appearance of healthier-looking skin. While most people do acupuncture along with cupping sessions and drinking Chinese herbs, there’s no harm in including only acupuncture sessions into your self-care routine if those other things don’t quite pique your interest.
How is acupuncture used for anxiety?
“Acupuncture works via the connective tissue to send messages to the brain that alters brain chemistry. Some of the things that it does for anxiety, specifically, is that it lowers cortisone levels, which is your stress hormone, and then it will also increase your serotonin and dopamine levels, which are your happy hormones, to bring you into a state of calm,” Dr. Auth said. But how exactly is this achieved through an acupuncture session? Apparently, the needles will help you shift from one nervous system to another.
“We also have two nervous systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic is our fight or flight, and the majority of us spend a lot more time there than in our parasympathetic, which is rest and digest. So one of the things that happen in an acupuncture session is that you shift out of your sympathetic nervous system and into your parasympathetic nervous system. Your blood will go to your belly, you’ll be able to digest better, and you’ll have a greater sense of calm,” Dr. Auth said.
The goal of acupuncture is to help your body to sustain a state of homeostasis for as long as possible. This can be contingent on how often you decide to schedule your sessions. While some people decide to see their acupuncturist once a month, most people try to squeeze in a session once a week to achieve a state a calm for a longer period of time. “With continual use, you can go week to week without anxiety; the effects become more cumulative,” Dr. Auth explained.
When it came time to finally try acupuncture for the first time, I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was in for. I decided to not do any research beforehand and was only slightly informed of the process from a friend who used acupuncture to help with back pain and anxiety. Aside from that, I was going into this session with little to no information, and I was actually excited to have needles placed on my body.
For my first experience with acupuncture, I decided to try out New York’s newly opened acupuncture studio, WTHN. The place is beautiful with its minimalistic yet modern decor, and instantly made me feel calm the minute I walked through the doors. Once I was checked in, I was provided a cup of hot ginger tea to sip on and explored their chic shop (which has herbal supplements) while I waited for my acupuncturist. Not long after, my acupuncturist arrived and brought me to one of the backrooms to begin my session. Before needles were even introduced, she inquired about what I was looking to achieve and heal by completing this session. I informed her that I wanted to subside my anxiety and to release pressure that I’ve recently been feeling in my lower back (hello, welcome to your 30’s!).
After a few more minutes of talking, she asked to look at my tongue. Within seconds, she informed me that my tongue wasn’t as red as she thought it was going to be for someone who has anxiety, and that it was on the short side. She suggested that I may have digestive issues, which hit the nail on the head. Dr. Auth explained that an acupuncturist may request this during your sessions to provide more information as to where he/she should place the needles on the body. “In Chinese Medicine, tongue diagnosis includes things like the color of the tongue, the shape of the tongue, the coat, the color of the coat, and the amount of coat. All of those parameters tell the acupuncturist about your health, how to treat you, and what points are most appropriate for you.”
Next, I undressed to my underwear and settled facedown onto the heated table, where I comfortably laid until my acupuncturist returned to the room, with what I would imagine a box full of needles. No pressure. She began inserting hair-thin needles into my ankles and slowly worked her way up, hitting certain points throughout my body, until she arrived at my head. With each needle, I felt a slight pressure, but no pain. And once the needle was in, it was hard to detect. The only way I felt them was if I decided to move a specific area, which was not on my to-do list.
In addition to covering the majority of my body, one needle was placed on the lower part of my head, where it met my neck; a few were placed in the middle of my back, next to my spine; and a couple were placed directly in the muscles of my shoulders. All of these points were supposed to help release tension and stress by directing blood to go into these areas.
After all of the needles were inserted, she explained that I was going to lay in this position for the next 20-25 minutes to let them do their magic. Luckily, I wasn’t going to be sitting with my thoughts during this time. In this acupuncture studio, they provide an original sound therapy session via the device of noise-canceling headphones. The guided meditation was created by Dr. Auth and Nate Martinez, who is known for holding sound baths across the city.
Within 15 minutes, I felt the most zen I’d felt all week (maybe even all month). A sense of calm waved over me as I focused on my breath and the sounds that softly rolled from the headphones. Unfortunately, I was brought back to reality when my acupuncturist gently touched my shoulder and removed the headphones from my ears. She took out the needles and gave a quick massage in certain areas to help release any little tension that might’ve been left. The post-acupuncture feeling was nothing that I thought I was going to experience. It was intoxicating but subtle. And after placing ear seeds on each of my ears, the calming sensation lasted for about three days. At first, I didn’t realize how well the session actually worked, until I got hit with anxiety Sunday night. It was as if an old friend decided to randomly visit without any notice and stay for three full days. My anxiety came back hard and strong, and it was a brutal realization that what I was feeling prior to this feeling was how I was actually supposed to feel on a daily basis; that what I was managing every single day couldn’t have been healthy for my state of mind or health.
While I believe my first session was a success, I plan on going back for another in the near future and would highly recommend this experience for someone who deals with anxiety on a daily basis. Not only is it a great alternative to handling stress, but acupuncture can be used as preventative care as well. And even though this may not be a cure-all for anxiety, stress, or pain (but honestly, what is?), acupuncture forced me to step away from the things that were causing me stress to focus on my health. While I laid on the heated bed, I had nothing in front of me to distract me from what I was feeling. The sound meditation helped me calm my thoughts and the nervous energy I naturally felt, whereas the needles literally kept me in place. I was in a vulnerable, submissive position that prevented me from looking for a distraction to deal with the stress and anxiety that I normally feel on a daily basis, and that was a wake-up call all on its own. If that isn’t considered a form of therapy, then I don’t know what is.