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Acupuncture, Anxiety and Me – By Susan Tretakis – I describe my anxiety as a runaway train – it screeches me awake at 3 AM, reminding me of things I “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done” both in the past and future. Unable to focus because of the tightness in my chest, or to catch a normal breath – it makes me question my own sanity.

My anxiety scares me, and it saddens me. Apparently, I am not alone. Perform any type of online research today and you’ll see “Anxiety and Depression” discussed and documented as twin demons who empower each other.

I don’t remember being overly anxious or depressed as a child; in retrospect, I guess I could have been – I graduated high school after skipping two earlier grades, was in college at age sixteen and graduated when I was twenty. I was still only twenty when I began teaching 17- and 18-year-old students, still only twenty when I began study on my first Masters.

But sitting here – now – reviewing this timeline in my head – and following that timeline through my other degrees, my other jobs – and their subsequent promotions, disappointments and successes – I can admit there were times I was stressed – times I was anxious. At age 45, after going through an imploding marriage, two catastrophic family illnesses, and resultant financial issues, I found myself in a therapist’s office.

She was – still is – wonderful.

First there was behavior analysis and modification – “tricks of the psychological trade” so to speak – all attempts to ease the pressure I put on myself, to silence the train whistle. But, still, pressure kept building. The whistle kept getting louder until one day, when I burst into tears after a 10-hour day because the “damn traffic light turned red”, we both agreed that some type of medication may be in order.

Western Medicine offers many options in the treatment of anxiety in the form of prescription medication. Unfortunately, unlike acupuncture, these come with many undesirable side effects.

Currently, there are FDA approved “Benzodiazepines” – a group of drugs that include Alprazolam (Xanax), Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan). These drugs can help reduce anxiety and have sedating effects. They work quickly, but they can be habit forming and are usually prescribed for short-term use. They may cause drowsiness, constipation, or nausea.

Trust me: Anxiety is not a short-term problem.

Another drug is “Buspirone” also known as “Buspar”.   Reports show that it does not seem to cause drowsiness or dependence, however, it takes two weeks – sometimes more – for an individual to feel any effect. Side effects can include insomnia, nervousness, light-headedness, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and headaches.

Trust me: In the midst of a panic attack, two weeks is a lifetime.

Then there are the antidepressants, a group of drugs that include Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Escitalopram (Lexapro), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Venlafaxine (Effexor). This is group of drugs that act on the same brain chemicals believed to be involved in anxiety.

As distraught as I was – as much of a wild, hippie chick that I once was – I still hated the thought of interfering with the chemistry of my brain.

I trusted my therapist – I trusted the psychiatrist to whom she sent me. At that time, psychiatrists were the only medical professionals who could prescribe psychotropic drugs. This control has changed over the years; general and family practitioners can and do prescribe such medicines routinely.   That in itself is troubling to me.

I stuck with the therapy, completed my mental homework and developed a “behavioral toolbox” of ways and means to deal with the faint sound of faraway – yet very close – train whistle. After about three years, I found it relatively easy to stop medications. I did, however, keep my therapist on speed dial.

Call me silly or call me intuitive – but I was both I drug-free and relatively therapist-free for 15 years.

And then two things happened: I turned 60 and I retired. I was free to do anything I wanted to do. I had no responsibility to anyone nor had to be anywhere at a specific time – mega lifestyle change, mega change of self-image, self-importance and apparently, I was to discover that I was one of those people whose life was defined by their occupation.

If I wasn’t at work, what was I doing? Apparently, I was going to many doctors and undergoing many tests. I jokingly – but really not “laughing-jokingly” – wrote that parts of my body were systematically rebelling against retirement: arthritic knees became worse (there were consults for dual knee replacements) headaches became worse, vertigo dizzily appeared, my teeth and gum issues imploded, and I was lying awake at night paralyzed with fear of the future, regrets about the past and totally out of touch with the present.

I was restless. Intellectually identifying them, but emotionally crippled by them, panic attacks snuck back into my days and nights. There were too many times that I could hear my own heartbeat. I had difficulty concentrating, I was irritable and a full nights’ sleep was becoming a very distant memory. This was not the “writing and painting” retirement I had envisioned.

Suddenly that inner runaway train had morphed into a supersonic train from Hell, complete with clanging bells, flashing lights, and the screech of wheels going far too quickly over metal rails.

I was back in my therapist’s office – and together – we decided on ways to refresh my toolbox. We both agreed that drugs were not the answer. In fact, it is she who encouraged me to look to Chinese Medicine for some answers – to perhaps ask my acupuncturist for specific anxiety treatment.

I have to admit – this gave me pause. While I had been receiving acupuncture regularly for the past year, I was more than content to leave my mind – or what I still thought I had left of my mind – in her hands. I simply stared at her and asked, “You want me to ask someone – albeit a very competent and kind someone – yes, someone who has helped me keep my original knees and has helped me lose weight – who has helped me get off of so many prescriptions – someone who – after seeing him for over a year – is still so young that I have shoes older than he is in my closet – about a 65 year old mental breakdown?”

She simply smiled, and said something that stuck in my mind and the reason I am writing this article:

“Perhaps there is a connection between what you are physically experiencing and what you are thinking. Perhaps, if acupuncture can ‘derail’ food and alcohol cravings and a year later – eliminate so many additional doctor visits, it can also help slow the train, allowing you to stop step on the brake. There’s no reason we can’t attack your anxiety from his side and mine. The bottom line is that you’re the one to benefit.”

I love when the Western side of the medical house opens the door to complementary health practices.

And how sad was it that while I was perfectly comfortable in telling my Chinese doctor my weight – a mega breakthrough in my trust paradigm – I really could not bring myself to explain to him that I was afraid for my sanity. Some things are best left unsaid.

Turns out that I didn’t have to say anything; apparently, good doctors of Chinese Medicine are truly intuitive – and ageless. Driving to my next acupuncture appointment, I thought about how to introduce my insanity to the calmness of a wellness center, and true to form, I decided to say nothing. At the risk of sounding glib, let me just say that the very idea of opening this topic was only making me more stressed. In fact, I was so stressed that during his regular assessment and his asking how I was, I wondered if he heard the same train whistle that was deafening my ears.

I smiled – and answered “Fine. Knees still hurt – sinuses still need needles – facing more dental work. The usual.”

And he sat and said, “May I be honest? I feel like we know each other a long time and you’re pretty open with me about what you want me to know. What’s with the false smile? Your pulses and tongue tell me there is something else – and I feel you are holding back on me. Is there anything else you want to tell me about what’s going on with you?”

I hate it when the kid in the room becomes the grown-up.

So I told him.   He made no judgement, did not run screaming from the room, just simply said that there are a number of causes of anxiety.

As he “pinned me”, he explained that many people who experience anxiety symptoms think they’re going crazy because they believe that letting anxiety win is a personal failure. People who have been exposed to trauma, violence, emotional duress, or threats of any kind know the source of their anxiety. This includes unrelenting stress and worry over a life event or situation that’s not easily resolved.

He left me, reminding me that “I was in a safe place”.

He came back 25 minutes later with many more homework assignments. I drove home. Got online and went back the next week.

That was seven weeks ago. Since that time, a dear friend passed away, I went through a 14 day exodus from Hurricane Irma to North Carolina, came home to the resultant, multiple and expensive malfunctions of home appliances when power was finally restored after ten days after the storm; next week I face another 4 hour dental surgery at which point I am pretty sure the front desk will not release me before I hand over my credit card for the additional $4000.00 still outstanding on my bill.

Am I anxiety-free? Absolutely not. Does anxiety control me – not so much.

Without a doubt, acupuncture addresses the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Hannah O’ Connell, in her blog for the Castlewood Clinic, writes that “an acupuncture treatment is tailor made for the patient. This means that rather than looking at “anxiety” and inserting “anxiety points”, it looks at how anxiety is specifically affecting the individual.” Traditional Chinese Medicine “views anxiety not simply as a brain dysfunction, but more as an inner organs dysfunction.”

My doctor knows that my triggers, my signs and symptoms are unique to me. He knows and identifies the specific Chinese herbs and homeopathic remedies that will assist me in overcoming my personal demons. I have come to realize that the very same skill set that made me most effective in my job could very well cause many of my current health issues.

For close to 30 years, it was my responsibility to worry about, to tend to every eventuality that could happen to a student; it was now not my job now to worry and obsess over every single thing that may or may not happen in my life. My doctor has shown me that almost all of which I worry over does not happen. I realized that I am using considerable psychic energy worrying about non-events. Staying in the “here and now” is far more difficult than a simple post on Facebook.

It’s not easy. Anxiety is sneaky; for me, it can creep up out of nowhere and at unexpected moments. For others, anxiety is predictable and associated with certain events, fears or situations. My daily, small successes show me that for my sense of self, acupuncture will be a part of my life for a long time.

I know I am not unique in suffering from anxiety for such a long time. It has been estimated that anxiety disorders affect between 15 and 30% of the population and that up to 45% of people will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least twice during their lifetime.   I suspect this number will only rise. I hope that if anxiety negatively impacts your life, you find the information in my listed sources helpful.

I must admit to a personal prejudice though: for me, the best resource is a Doctor of Chinese Medicine.

However young he may be.



  1. Pacific College
  2. Ageless Herbs
  3. Mind Body Green
  4. Conscious Lifestyle Mag
  5. “Treating Anxiety with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine” by your Acupuncture Specialist, published March 30, 2010”
  6. Google/ WebMD: Traditional Chinese Medicine and Anxiety
  7. “Homeopathic Guide To Stress”, Miranda Castro, published by Health Harmony LTD., 2009
  8. “Acupuncture and TCM Vs Western Medical prescription drug therapies”, by Hannah O’Connell Castlewood Clinic, 19 Castlewood Terrace, Rathmines, Dublin 6