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Why Acupuncture Works for Mental Health

A while ago I was chatting with my father-in-law and mentioned that acupuncture can be very effective for things like depression and anxiety. His response was,

“So where do you put the needles for that. In the head?”

Well for a westerner who knows nothing about Traditional East Asian Medicine (T.E.A.M.) that’s a fairly logical response. But in fact I’d approach treatment for depression in much the same way as I would for many other conditions. And that raises the question of why such an approach might be effective in treating things like depression.

Traditional East Asian Medicine has a deep and rich set of theories it uses to explain and guide what it does, but they can be somewhat impenetrable for the lay person so I don’t want to dwell to much on them here. The parts of it that are relevant here are firstly that T.E.A.M. considers the mind and body to be intimately linked, with those linkages often listed under particular organs (for instance the Liver is associated with, amongst other things, anger and with our ability to plan and see ahead). The second thing to bear in mind is that because of the intimate connection between our mind, our emotional state and our body, everything that happens to us gets stored in the body in some way.

This idea that the state of our body reflects our mental/emotional state is fairly obvious. I’m sure most of us have the experience of being stressed and then realising that we’ve clenched our jaw or hunched up our shoulders. The idea that those experiences, or traces of them, are stored in our body after the event, when we’ve unclenched our jaw and relaxed our shoulders, is perhaps harder for many people to accept and its easier to see in more extreme cases. An obvious example might be someone with PTSD who, on top of the mental and emotional symptoms, may experience a range of apparently unrelated physical symptoms including unexplained pain, digestive issues, cold extremities, allergies etc. Thankfully very few of us will ever be exposed to the sort of stressors that result in PTSD but we all live in a world that is face paced, stressful and over stimulating and for which our coping mechanisms may not have evolved.

My own experience with this idea that our experiences are stored in our body comes from my practice of Tai-Chi. The first standing posture one learns when learning Tai-Chi is Wuji, a sort of neutral posture in which one tries to empty the body and mind and in which one finds the accumulated tensions therein, which one then tries to release. Standing in Wuji for extended periods of time is likely to produce shaking, spontaneous movements and emotional release of which I’ve written about here. But on a day to day basis the ways that I, like many others deal, with stress in my life seem more like distractions than genuine coping mechanisms. I’m thinking here of having a drink after work, watching a film, gaming etc. But if our coping mechanisms aren’t actually dealing with the underlying stress could it be that things like depression arise when we can no longer distract our body/mind from the accumulated stress under which it’s operating?

That’s not a question to which I have a definitive answer but it does suggest why T.E.A.M. may be effective in treating mental health conditions and why treatment wouldn’t necessarily involve placing needles in the patient’s head. At its most basic Traditional East Asian Medicine understands illness in terms of the energy of the body: Is it excess or deficient? Is it stuck or flowing to fast? Those detailed linkages between mind and body that the theory of T.E.A.M. sets out hopefully lead the practitioner to an understanding of just where the body may be stuck, what might be excessive, what deficient and what should be done to move stagnation, calm excess and engender balance.


Bruce Bell is an acupuncturist working from clinics in Midsomer Norton and Keynsham in N.E. Somerset

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