Black women are turning to this traditional practice to support weight loss and as a complementary treatment for anxiety, hot flashes, fibroids, diabetes and pain.
It’s common to feel anxious or worried about work, money, health, relationship and family matters. For Black folks, racism and discriminatory treatment add to our anxiety.
But if intense feelings of dread and fear cloud everyday situations and are hard to shake, you may have an anxiety disorder. Related symptoms include difficulty controlling feelings of worry; feeling nervous, restless or tense; finding it hard to concentrate; being easily fatigued; having trouble sleeping; experiencing digestive issues; and suffering from headaches and unexplained pains.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Reportedly, Black women tend to experience more intense anxiety symptoms than our white counterparts. While psychotherapy and, in some cases, medication are traditional treatment approaches, some sisters are turning to acupuncture, which research shows may be an effective complementary and alternative treatment option for generalized anxiety disorder.
“Anxiety is something most of us have to work through. Allowing our bodies to adapt with ease to the ebbs and flows is key in maintaining balance and order within the space of self-care,” explains Walda Laurenceau, a board-certified and licensed acupuncturist in New York City.
“When that anxiety is constantly compounding with that flight-or-fight response, especially when looking at racialized trauma, [there is] no room to reset and restore, [and] we create chronic conditions within the body, mind and spirit.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine
A component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a technique used to balance energy (called chi), which is believed to flow through certain meridians or pathways in the body. This is achieved when acupuncturists insert fine needles into these meridian points.
Peggy R. Robinson, D.A.O.M., a licensed acupuncturist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York, recognizes that her Black female clients feel comfortable seeking treatment from someone who looks like them.
“Twenty years ago, my practice was a last resort for Black women. Now, because of more mainstream information, and with more insurance covering wellness and integrative medicine, I am becoming a first choice for preventive care, fertility and women’s health issues, as well as supportive care for serious illness,” she says.
“Representation matters when it comes to patient trust, and Black women in particular deserve to feel empathy and love for their lives, needs and well-being when they see their health care provider.”
Tabitha Wilson has been visiting Dr. Robinson for acupuncture treatments twice a month for several years. The 49-year-old cancer survivor also suffers from lupus, and she says that anxiety about her health issues has caused her to have dizzy spells, lower back pain, migraine headaches and panic attacks.
“If I go [to acupuncture] feeling a heaviness or tightness in my chest, when I lay on that table and she puts the needles in, I feel a lightness. I can feel the energy moving. I can take deep cleansing breaths where I wasn’t able to catch my breath before. I feel more relaxed and lighter,” says Wilson, who says her migraines and lower back pain have lessened since starting acupuncture.
Studies show that African Americans are systematically undertreated for pain because of the racially biased medical belief that we experience less pain. So even when it’s unrelated to anxiety, acupuncture may be effective for pain relief.
Wilson says her husband also has back pain, and she will coax him to try acupuncture.
“He is more apprehensive because of the needles,” she says. “But once you get started, it doesn’t hurt. You barely feel the needles.”
You won’t break my soul
At one point, Wilson, who works for a pharmaceutical company, was so stressed out by daily microaggressions and biased treatment that she took a two-month leave of absence. Another racism-related trigger she’s noticed is that her feelings of fear and anxiety have intensified with the uptick of hate crimes.
“Unfortunately, there’s always the thought that something bad could happen when I’m at an event, at church or in a store, so I am always aware of my surroundings and watching my back,” she says.
“Living this way can cause a lot of stress, and regular acupuncture visits really help ease my mind and remove the tension I feel in my body.”
Laurenceau agrees that acupuncture can be used to ground and stabilize the mind, body and spirit, especially during these uncertain times.
“When the Black women I’ve worked with experience the energy medicine of acupuncture, there is a point of stillness they realize they [can] access,” she says.
“When they begin to tap into this complex inner world, it becomes easier to navigate the ever-changing outer world. This can be quite profound, and I’ve witnessed the shift as they become more clear of their needs, as well as shifting their bodies’ physical response to life stressors. There is a sense of empowerment they naturally ease into.”
Acupuncture for us, by us
Growing scientific evidence supports acupuncture as a complementary treatment for diabetes, which disproportionately affects African Americans. And Dr. Robinson and Laurenceau comment that many of their Black female clients seek acupuncture treatment for women’s health issues, including infertility, fibroids, ovarian cysts, menstrual pain, hot flashes and weight loss.
Private acupuncture sessions range from $100 and up per session (covered by some health insurance plans). Ear acupuncture, which was introduced to communities of color in the ’70s by the social activist groups the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, is a more affordable option used for the treatment of addiction, trauma and stress.
To find a Black acupuncturist near you, check out the Black Acupuncturist Association website at blackacupuncturist.org.