Acupuncture News

Soothing the Emotional Brain

Using Acupuncture to Help the Grieving Process

Like so many of our patients, I have been processing the grief of recent loss.  The experience has been a fascinating and complex journey of related emotions and the movement of its physical expressions.  Overall, it has reinforced what I have always appreciated as the foundation of Chinese Medicine, a vast biopsychosocial model of healthcare. 

Over thousands of years, the model has been refined to provide an understanding of the complex interplay of our health, emotions, and social state.  It serves as a framework for modulating the restoration and maintenance of a patient’s health. It enables a deep understanding of the patient’s state. It provides a comprehensive and flexible treatment model that blends deeper human interactive qualities such as empathy, hands-on contact, words with a mix of physical treatments, herbs, food, and physical movement.

The art of healing is not one of suppressing or desensitizing. It is promotional in terms of facilitating the progression of the health state, softening the expressions or manifestations that could be harmful to a broader state of wellness, and letting healing take its course. 

The Chinese medical system associates all aspects of our physical and emotional state, along with most of the external factors that influence our state of being, such as diet, environment, weather, the seasons, into five large categories of inferred relational interplay.  Each category is named after an element. Grief and autumn are placed in the same one, the metal element. That ancient but comprehensive model provides insight into a condition, its progression, and treatment models tailored to the individual.

Western wisdom, interestingly, orients to the five stages of grief, a cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Two distinct cultures have two distinct perspectives and understanding of how grief impacts the mind/body state.  Both are valuable and accurate in their respective realms.

Over the past few years, our understanding of the neural mechanisms of emotions has developed significantly. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can conduct a live investigation of brain function and delineate the related brain networks involved in those emotional states.

We can now see the areas of the brain that are impacted by grief.  The limbic system, often called the emotional brain, displays high levels of neural activity during that emotional experience.

Researchers have found that acupuncture provides a direct calming of limbic system activity. They also find measurable changes in brain chemistry, including dopamine and serotonin, that work to maintain a balance of mood and function.

Other studies show acupuncture normalizing brain and hormonal activity. The findings validate acupuncture as a treatment for grief and other emotional states and support its use in health care settings.

Those changes in brain chemistry and function explain why patients so commonly experience physiological benefits and emotional soothing with acupuncture.

Last week, for example, one of our patients who was grieving over a Covid loss in her family reported that after her treatment, she not only had a much calmer emotional state but her digestive problems eased. She had a normal night of sleep. She felt a heavy weight had been lifted from her chest. Her response exemplifies how acupuncture can facilitate functional body-mind state improvements.

The effects of treatment are typically cumulative and, fortunately, results are typically noticed in a short span of time, requiring only a few visits.

Thankfully, time heals the human state.