Acupressure for depression and anxiety: new research proves ancient wisdom

Depression and anxiety are an epidemic of the modern world.

If you have never been through some dark times, where lack of motivation pins you down, or panicky, racing thoughts freeze you, you are likely to at least know someone who has. Or you are an alien from another planet – thank you for visiting, please be kind to us humankind, as we suffer challenges and have our demons to fight! 😊

Chinese Medicine actually excels at treating “diseases of the Spirit” – what we call mental health these days – since a healthy spirit has always been considered as inseparable from a healthy body. Yet, a series of visits to an acupuncturist is not always a feasible option.

Today, I want to tell you about recent research, which highlighted the use of acupressure to alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, pooling data from over 1400 participants. I will also share with you some tips you can implement for yourself, or your loved ones, immediately.

I have divided this article into sections, so that you can just look at the take-aways, delve with me into appraising the research if you are a practitioner or a research geek, and finally learn what you can do in practice if you are seeking help with depression or anxiety yourself.

Want that practical advice pronto? Alright, alright, I know patience is not always a feasible option: I’ve got you covered. You can get my Acupressure Guide to your Health here as well as a handy tool to using Acupressure for Mental Health clicking this link. Then come back to read this article while pressing your points of choice! 😊

 

New research about acupressure for mental health: Key Take-Aways

Researchers from Hong Kong’s Mental Health Research Centre have pooled together information from several studies, accessing data from over 1400 participants (Lin at al, 2022).

So, if you are wondering what research says about acupressure for depression and anxiety, we now have a rather solid answer:

Acupressure works well to help symptoms of depression as well as symptoms of anxiety!

The researchers found that:

  • Acupressure helps symptoms of depression regardless of whether it is a stand-alone problem, or if depression is accompanying a chronic disease (e.g. advanced renal disease, chronic pain);
  • Acupressure helps symptoms of anxiety when those are present alongside depression (anxiety without depression was not studied, though authors theorise it is likely to also be effective);
  • Those results are valid for older patients as well as for younger patients;
  • The number of acupoints used was not significant: some studies reported using only 3 or even fewer acupressure points;
  • There is good evidence that acupressure should be used regularly and long-term: the benefit of acupressure is more pronounced when it is applied for more than 2 weeks, and even more distinct when the treatment lasts over 4 weeks;
  • The length of time spent per point appears to have less of an effect than the length of treatment;
  • Acupressure has a measurable effect over sham – a point with hefty practical implications I discuss more below!

 

In many ways, the findings of how well acupressure works are truly quite impressive and certainly give us a lot of hope for the integration of of acupressure into various medical treatment models.

So, if you are a fellow acupuncturist, please consider sharing this article to help spread awareness.

And if you are a “civilian” wondering whether it makes sense to spend your time pressing a finger into some strange point on your body, I hope you are convinced now to give acupressure a try! I will give you some very clear pointers further on.

But before I discuss these takeaways in more detail, let us take a closer look at the study and its limitations.

How was the study conducted?

The title of the study is: Impacts of acupressure treatment on depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. It was conducted by researchers from Hong Kong’s Mental Health Research Centre and was published by the World Journal of Psychiatry. The research team, headed by Lin Jinxia and Tsang HWH, have conducted a meta-analysis of 14 Randomised Control Trials, which allowed them to include a substantial sample of over 1400 participants.

If you are not familiar with the world of research, let me summarise for you how powerful this is: a meta-analysis is considered the highest degree of evidence in Evidence Based Medicine.

Essentially, data from several experiments has been pooled together and re-analysed. This helps to control for the bias or error that might have crept in to one study, and effectively balances out those experiments which unduly found acupressure not good, or too good to be true. Therefore, now we have a higher degree evidence for acupressure’s effectiveness than any one Randomised Controlled Trial could provide.

You can access the full study here.

 

Strengths of the research

The researchers had access to data from a solid number of 1439 patients (gathered from 14 clinical trials) and therefore were able to see how acupressure affects people with depression and anxiety across various age groups and clinical conditions. For instance, some patients had only depression, some had depression and anxiety and some suffered depression together with a chronic disease. The researchers were also able to compare studies where 3 or fewer acupoints were used with those employing over 3 acupoints, as well as compare the effect size when acupressure treatment lasted under 2 weeks, between 2 and 4 week and over 4 weeks.

This way, they can be quite precise about their conclusions.

 

Can we trust those guys? A little academic appraisal

I teach students at the International College of Oriental Medicine, where I lecture Research Methodology, that you must always look beyond the results and ask: how were those results obtained? Essentially, can we trust that the process of research actually yielded the conclusion the authors claim, without bias?

Overall, Lin et al’s meta-analysis seems to be robust and trustworthy.

Firstly, the research team had access to studies published in both Chinese and English, two languages in which the most evidence on acupuncture and related therapies is produced. This gives them a better access to available data than should they be limited to one language, as unfortunately many researcher teams are.

Second, they did their best to make sure they included only reputable studies. Two researchers assessed the quality of these studies independently, so we can trust that the conclusions they reached are as objective as can be.  As a result, 16 Chinese trials were excluded from the analysis. The quality of each included study and its limitations are clearly appraised according to international standards (STRICTA), and this is shared with the readers.

All the studies included compared acupuncture treatment with a control group: either sham, or Treatment as Usual, or both.

Next, statistical analysis was done according to well-established protocols. And finally, the limitations of the study – where conclusions could not be reached or were unclear – were openly discussed by the authors.

Being published in the World Journal of Psychiatry is also a peer stamp of approval. Articles submitted for publication to such an international journal will go through a strict per-review process (I know, as I used to help peer review for one journal in the past).

So in short, yes, my conclusion is that we can trust the authors!

What we still don’t know: Limitations of the study

With every study, there are things it just can’t tell you, and this one is no exception.

  1. Role of acupressure in patients with severe depression and / or anxiety.

The researchers at Hong Kong’s Mental Health Research Centre took the decision to not include patients with severe symptoms of depression or anxiety. They focused on those who, although suffering from low mood, intrusive thoughts and poor concentration etc, were able to just about go about their lives. So, we do not know how much acupressure can benefit someone whose condition is truly debilitating.

This does not mean that acupressure will not help a person with severe symptoms. It simply means this particular scenario has not been investigated to the same degree, yet. It is possible it helps just as much, or maybe helps just a little bit, or needs to be seen as a part and parcel of a multi-faceted approach.

  1. Which are the best acupoints to use?

While this is of course what many of us would like to know, Chinese Medicine is highly individualised by nature. Naturally, the studies included in the systematic review varied a lot. The authors concluded that:

The acupressure manipulation applied in the included studies differed widely, and no confirmative conclusion could be drawn on the most effective acupressure technique.

While they remark that the primary goal of points chosen in all the studies was “refreshing the brain and soothing the liver function” this is not very informative in the context of Chinese Medicine. It is akin to saying: “points chosen to treat depression and anxiety all related to regulating mood one way or another”. Well, duh! Thanks for letting us know!

They make, however, one observation which is of practical relevance to practitioners and “civilians” alike:

“the selection of acupoints was based on the TCM principles and aimed to improve the body’s natural self-healing capacity by regulating and balancing Qi.”

So, very much in line with my clinical observations, when your general state of health improves, so does your mental health. This is why I produced an acupressure guide to allow people to monitor their meridian health in a basic way.

  1. How long to press, and how strong should the acupressure be?

The researchers themselves admit that we still don’t know how long to press and how much to press to achieve the ideal acupressure dose. They call for more studies to assess this, while emphasising that standard pressure might be difficult to measure, because it is a tenet of Chinese Medicine that treatment strength must be adjusted to each patient.

 

Golden conclusions: research-based strategies to ease depression and anxiety

So, what are the practical conclusions we can draw on the basis of this acupressure research? How should we use acupressure, and given no better data, which acupoints to use for depression and anxiety?

  1. JUST DO IT!

Acupressure is not sham and it is almost invariably better than usual care alone. Whether it will heal you or not only time will tell, but it will almost certainly help! So, rest assured that using acupressure for depression and anxiety will bring a positive effect. And give it a go.

  1. CHOOSE A MANAGEABLE NUMBER OF POINTS

Chinese Medicine is not a case of the more the merrier, and the meta-analysis neatly confirmed this. There is a principle in acupuncture that the perfect number of acupoints will be the smallest one that works. With each acupoint, we send a message to the body. Too many messages, and your body ends up confused, not knowing what to actually do. The researchers were unable to recommend a particular acupressure protocol, but they did not find a better effect with a bigger number of acupoints. I suggest choosing between 2 and 4 acupoints for an at-home acupressure session.

 

  1. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW YOUR ACUPRESSURE POINTS

Here is where knowing what you are doing can make all the difference. All the studies which compared acupressure on real acupoints versus sham showed a positive clinical result: the sham point did not work nearly as well as the real point.

So, this is some clear evidence that you need to know where to press. It may sound obvious, but it is a frequent problem I have encountered working as an acupuncturist. I have had patients say to me: “Oh, I have been using an acupressure point for headaches and it didn’t work”, but when I asked them to show me which point they used, they were completely off the mark! Unfortunately, this is the dark side of our beautiful medicine spreading wider and wider… Anyone can record a tutorial on Tik Tok, and before we know it, instead of Chinese Medicine we have… Chinese whispers!

  1. POINTS NEED TO BE EASY TO PRESS

While this was not an overt conclusion of the research review, Lin et al did compare the results of three most frequently used acupressure points in a statistical analysis. They found a comparatively very small effect of ShenMen (HT 7) – a point on the wrist which is very frequently used in acupuncture for its mind calming and anti-insomnia properties. Its name actually means “the Gate of Spirit” in Chinese! I theorise that this is due to this point’s location not making it suitable for acupressure: it is a small point on the wrist, between a tendon and a vein. It can work its magic with needle stimulation, but a finger might just not access it well. A point which is easy to access and press can be much more effectively stimulated with finger pressure.

  1. GET YOUR ACUPRESSURE PROTOCOL FROM A RELIABLE SOURCE

This is in fact a conclusion of the two previous points.

Ideally, you would visit an acupuncturist who will prescribe a set of points both easy to press and most relevant to your particular condition.

If this is not feasible or you really want to give it a go at home first, take a look at the guide to Acupressure for Calming the Mind I prepared.

I specifically chose points which are easy to find and to stimulate even without any prior knowledge. So you can rest assured you will be benefiting from acupressure, not performing sham on yourself! Here is some feedback from one of the early users, Joanna:

First: I´m very surprised, because the points are not difficult to find (thanks to your good description and visualization) and you really don´t need any special knowledge how to press or massage, I just tried and my finger knew what to do… Second: I am surprised how powerful it is…

Download it here to give it a try.

  1. STICK WITH IT

We know you need to be regular – and the benefits will accumulate! Lin et al. reported a bigger effect after 2 weeks, and even larger, after 4 weeks of using acupressure regularly.

  1. SHARE – BECAUSE WHY NOT?

Consider who else in your life would benefit from a tool to lift their mood. After all, acupressure does not come into conflict with any medication and can be used alongside traditional Western treatment.

Remember, age doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. While many interventions are more potent in younger individuals—just think how quickly kids fall ill and bounce back—we now have evidence that acupressure benefits older adults too. So, if your 90-year-old granny is open to the idea, don’t hesitate to share some acupressure tips with her!

And if your friends are going through hard times, maybe they will appreciate a link to this article.

And if your family members or roomies are getting on your nerves… you know what to do, too!😊 After all, happiness shared is happiness doubled!

1 Comment

  1. Patrick Leonard

    Very interesting article. Great to know this type of research is being conducted. Iga is indeed very knowledgeable.

    Reply

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