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.