Anxiety & Allergies: How Acupuncture Can Treat Both

Allergies and anxiety are two of the main complaints we treat daily at Long Beach Community Acupuncture. This year both conditions have been extreme: while I can’t exactly say why the rise in anxiety has occurred, I can attest to our very wet winter, followed by an amazing super bloom. An unfortunate byproduct from all of this beauty has been terrible allergies for people who are susceptible--everything from runny nose, watery eyes, blocked ears, and itchy skin.

 

The New York Times column, “Ask Well,” explored the link between allergies and anxiety recently, beginning with the question: “Are my allergies all in my head?” The relationship between reactions has been documented as early as 1883. While they do not claim that “emotions and stress” actually “cause” allergies, they do suggest that allergies can worsen anxiety. And the ENT doctor from the nineteenth century noted that “‘attacks of prolonged sneezing are most apt to occur in persons of nervous temperament’” (4/02/2019, D4).

 

Western medicine describes the mechanism for allergies this way: “In all allergies, the immune system overreacts to certain antigens (called allergens) that are harmless in most people. It is a common immunity mistake because the system is tuned for ‘zero tolerance’ . . . it cannot let a harmful substance slip by its protective barriers and it may overreact in the process of surveillance” (Bruce H. Robinson, M. D., Biomedicine: A Textbook for Practitioners of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, 2007, p. 460).

 

Thinking about allergies as an over-reaction and the immune system as one of “zero tolerance” is a provocative idea. Anxiety, too, is also a kind of over-reaction or hyper-stimulation of the nervous system. One of our great modern teachers of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, Richard Tan, shared this notion in a continuing education class on “Stress, Insomnia, and Depression.” In describing a diagnostic pattern, he links the impulse to over-react to stress and allergies. (He also links expectation and depression in interesting ways but that is for another blog.)

 

Taking his class, I was struck by the connection, remembering one of the last severe allergy attacks I had. Santa Ana winds had been blowing, and I was commuting to work on my bicycle; however, I had also experienced a recent, strong emotional reaction (one might say over-reaction). By the time I had gotten home, my head felt sealed up from nostrils to vertex--like cement--nothing moved and it was hard to breathe. I was miserable and it made for poor sleep.

 

In retrospect, I wouldn’t say that stress caused this particular physical response--as I have had seasonal allergies all my life--but they did occur in succession. More importantly, I have begun to think carefully about my emotional output and how my sinus reacts. Exploring this mind-body connection, I check in to measure my responses and to ask--am I working in a mind-set of “zero-tolerance”?

This greater awareness has been helpful to me overall. Allergies and anxiety are normal responses to existing, and each day presents a new set of circumstances to navigate, both internally and externally. If your daily life is severely impacted by either reaction, it is an indication that you need help. Becoming aware of your patterns of response is an important part of managing anxiety and allergies. Acupuncture can make a difference, especially frequent treatments. Acupuncture assists in calming the nervous system and regulating body functions. At our clinic, we have seen great results in helping people manage these reactions. Remember that “[o]ne-third of all people in the U. S. have at least one allergy” (Robinson, 460). The next time you have a flare up of anxiety or allergies, see what you notice. Which came first? Did one condition aggravate the other? And know that we are here to help.

Community Acupuncture and Trauma-Informed Care

This month to celebrate POCA’s membership drive, we’d like to share a great blog post from one of community acupuncture’s founders, Lisa Rohleder. In it, she discusses how community clinics, like ours, are informed by trauma-informed care. At LBCA, we believe it’s an essential approach in making people feel comfortable and providing compassionate healthcare.

Follow this link to find out more: https://www.pocacoop.com/prick-prod-provoke/post/toward-a-culture-of-safety-part-3-trauma-informed-care

Reflections From a Forced Hiatus, Part II

Just last Thursday, my podiatrist released me from care, and I am so happy to be back at the clinic, seeing all of your lovely faces, and hearing about your lives! I really missed all of the interaction while I was at home recovering from my bicycle accident.

Last month, I shared how much I learned from this experience and the lessons keep coming. Certainly acupuncture and herbs really helped me deal with pain and swelling and supported my bones in healing, but there were many other things that really made a positive difference.  If you have had a similar experience or know someone with an injury, I wanted to share what helped me through.

In general, I operate on the belief that “you don’t give to get.” You do what you do without expecting anything in return. So I was awed by the care so many of you showed me when this happened. My accident occurred blocks away from the clinic. After Ayla picked me up, two long-time patients, who had arrived for their appointments that day, thought nothing of loading me and my broken foot into their car and taking me to urgent care. They stayed with me through the entire process of x-rays and assessment, then took me home and helped me get settled. It was so kind and such a relief to have people I have known for 5 years taking care of me. I am a little embarrassed to admit that it was unexpected, though perhaps, it shouldn’t have been.

During this process, others offered help, though I was a bit shy of taking them up on it. I--like many people--find it very difficult to ask for help. If someone you know is in a similar situation, keep this in mind; they may need it more than they know and just may find it hard to ask or even accept. Sincerely offering help and being ready to follow through counts!

My spirit was buoyed by the many get well cards I received. In our days of social media and virtual everything, paper cards are so touching. I arranged them like you might holiday cards, keeping them around to inspire me to fully recover. It was healing to know I was loved and missed in my darkest moments. Physical injuries have an emotional component--important to remember and acknowledge with people you know who are suffering.

Emails, texts, along with Facebook and Instagram messages were also nice too. Being housebound and immobile was so isolating, so when my phone would register a text or email, it broke up many hours of being alone with my thoughts. Connecting with those who are injured can feel like a balm to them, and any form they can access is likely welcome, so don’t assume you will be bothering them.

Some sent flowers, which were a bright, happy addition to my healing environment. Friends stopped by with food and conversation--truly welcome for our whole household. My dear spouse lovingly bore the brunt of caregiving; still, he was glad to have a few meals taken care of that he didn’t have to prepare.

There were many jokes about Netflix binges, and while I am no purist when it comes to this, I saved it for evenings. I indulged my acupuncture nerdiness with some new books on the subject, but I could only read so much of this, as not being able to practice in the moment easily triggered my sadness at not treating people.

I read various books on mindfulness and meditation: Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance (2003), Haemin Sunim’s Love for Imperfect Things (2018) and The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (2017)--all of which helped me accept my current situation.

For entertainment, I read Tara Westover’s Educated (2018), Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes (2018), and I am still working through Lian Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers (2018).

Switching from reading to listening, I found certain podcasts mentally nourishing: Tara Brach’s offered a true life-line for self-reflection; Shankar Vedantum’s “Hidden Brain” informed and entertained, and Krista Tippett’s “On Being” provided an amazing mix of interviews that inspired.

I did crossword puzzles and made a healing vision card of healthy right feet doing activities I planned to return to. I even signed up to participate in a five day bicycle ride in September that raises money for the California Bicycle Coalition to ensure I would get back on my bike.

While my injury is one that healed, other people you know may be living with a disability every single day. Consider what you might do to make their lives a little easier and a little less isolating. If you have had a similar experience, I’d love to hear what helped you heal. Our office manager, Ayla, loves the Ram Dass quote, “We’re all just walking each other home.” Indeed, we are. How can you do that for someone you know? Even someone you don’t know so well?

Reflections From a Forced Hiatus

Since opening LBCA in 2013, I have rarely had to cancel shifts. Other than our scheduled vacation breaks, I took a week off when my father died in 2017 and more recently I had to call off my first day back in 2019 due to a cold I caught over Christmas. Since January 25, I have largely been immobile and housebound after breaking 3 bones in my right foot on my way to work. The injury required surgery, along with strict instructions to bear no weight for at least 5 weeks.

          This change was abrupt, ending a daily routine I have enjoyed for almost 6 years. Like my foot, my sense of independence and ego was also fractured. This forced hiatus has yielded insights, surprises, and much appreciation. People sent cards and well wishes via email and social media, and I must admit it was nice to be missed. Some even brought flowers and books to the clinic for me. The wonderful people who work at LBCA really stepped up to cover extra shifts and not complain as their income was adversely affected by my own absence.

            I have never had an injury so debilitating and the emotional side of this situation was truly a surprise. While I have felt blessed and loved, I have also felt very isolated and depressed at times. It is a great lesson in the physical and psychological complexities of injury, illness, and disease. As a healthcare provider, I am aware that physical pain comes with an emotional component, but the feelings of uselessness and dependence were a genuine surprise to me. And still, I have been lucky in my life--this injury will heal--while many people will continue living with disabilities that will not and others must navigate the enormous challenges of terminal illness.

            As I was lying around recuperating, I thought a lot about the daily work of treating patients and missed it. I also thought about the probability of accidents and just how much uncertainty there is in life and in small business. My mind kept returning to the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs that Lisa Rohleder identifies in Acupuncture Points are Holes: A Case Study in Social Entrepreneurship (2017). Like most community clinic owners, she and I have very little formal business training. Neither one of us necessarily wanted to open businesses but we had to create our own jobs in order to practice acupuncture in a way that rings true to our values. Of the qualities she enumerates, Rohleder includes “a tolerance for risk and uncertainty” (8).

            The realization that she possessed these characteristics came only in hindsight, as she remembers a devastating personal loss that occurred long before she even thought about being an acupuncturist. It is a poignant moment emphasizing the fact that anything you have or have worked for can be taken away from you in an instant. No amount of planning will guarantee any security over your life as you know it. Her clinic WCA (Working Class Acupuncture) is the original community clinic that spurred this movement of promoting affordable acupuncture. WCA remains successful, treating upwards of 50,000 patients a year. Rohleder admits she couldn’t have imagined this successful outcome and certainly didn’t realize that enduring the loss of a dear friend so many years earlier would inform her business acumen.

Embracing uncertainty and taking risks requires great courage. And sometimes things happen and leave you with very little choice. This experience has shown me--like no other could--how successful LBCA has become and not just because of me. Sure, we’ve had to limit hours but treatments continue, week after week, with or without me. And that is a great thing!

Acknowledging the Love in Community Acupuncture

Rufus Strikes & Wins (3).png

“Being together we learn to understand and allow the process of community to transform us.” Gururas Khalsa, Seminole Heights Community Acupuncture

If you haven’t picked up and read the book Acupuncture is Like Noodles, which is available in our waiting room, then please do. The book is the origin story of community acupuncture clinics and, according to Ann Mongeau, L.Ac., a former family nurse practitioner and nursing educator, “[the book] offers a vision of how health care should be: honest, straightforward, accessible, affordable, uncomplicated and based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect.” With this in mind, I am inspired to pause and reflect on how these ideas play out in our clinic.

For example, we treat in a common area as this allows us to share acupuncture with more people and to keep our fees low. New patients often find this hard to believe. They ask if our acupuncturists are licensed. They are. They ask about hidden fees. There are none. They ask if the service changes based on what they pay. It doesn’t. And when they ask about the community treatment room, I smile to myself as I think on how best to articulate the special kind of magic that happens here. Here are just a handful of stories that come to mind:

  • One day, a sweet patient exited the treatment room and closed the door ever so quietly and carefully; she remarked that everyone in the treatment room looked so peaceful and she didn’t want to disturb them.

  • A new patient came to our clinic and was very nervous about his first ever acupuncture treatment. As he waited, three patients exited at the same time and shared in passing how much they “needed that” and how wonderful their “acu-naps” were. He looked over to me and smiled, I saw his shoulders instantly lower as he started to relax and feel more settled.

  • One night, a patient brought in a bag of lemons. I couldn’t possibly take all of them, so she offered them to other patients arriving and departing. Soon, I witnessed a beautiful, happy-hearted conversation between four strangers as they expressed a love for fresh fruit and exchanged recipe ideas for lemon cupcakes, bars, and cookies.

  • On a Saturday, a mother and daughter came in to honor the passing of a loved one and we chatted about loss and the processing that follows. Before heading in, the daughter shared with me an uplifting story about how she helped her little one understand death and grief. After they headed into the treatment room, another patient looked over with reluctant tears in her eyes, “that’s exactly what I needed to hear today”.

I don’t know about you, but moments like these leave me feeling full and warm-hearted at the end of a day. It’s uplifting to see strangers come together to sit in stillness and heal; to have a chat now and then; and to be sweet to one another because, to quote Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home”.

So this month, the month so often associated with romantic love, consider for a moment the countless other forms of love. Love from friends, family, and pets, as well as love within your community. Allow community the chance to transform you and I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly the world becomes a brighter place.