I Tried Acupuncture to Move On From a Breakup — And It Actually Worked
Breakups are never easy. Mine certainly wasn't. After four years of an on-and-off toxic relationship, I was left feeling pretty lost once it officially ended, and thought I'd never come out of that dark place. As someone who was diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at a young age, dwelling in the past is kind of my thing.
After a couple of years, things got better. I graduated college, moved to a major city (twice), and got a job at a fashion magazine. I was thriving and loving my single life. Sure, my ex crossed my mind every now and again, but I felt independent and happy.
But news that he was dating someone (a friend of mine, no less) re-triggered the extreme anxiety I felt when things first ended. It actually felt like I was living through the breakup all over again. Clearly, I had heaps of unresolved emotions around our split that I'd suppressed for years, and they all came bubbling to the surface. On top of it all, I was angry and frustrated that he still had an effect on me. Quite honestly, I felt pathetic. I was in emotional hell.
So when I heard that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices, like acupuncture and ear seeding, could work wonders for mental health, I figured I'd give it a go — I'd already tried pretty much everything else. As a total acupuncture virgin though, I was definitely skeptical. How did it even work? Would the needles hurt? Could it seriously get rid of the anxiety that even my Prozac failed to soothe? Spoiler alert: It did actually work for me. Here's what I learned along the way...
What is acupuncture, really?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into specific areas on the body known as acupuncture points, according to Dr. Shari Auth, DACM, LAC, LMT, a leading holistic health practitioner and co-founder of New York City-based acupuncture studio Wthn, the cozy and chic, spa-like facility where I received my treatments. This practice, which is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), dates back some 3,000 years.
The premise: "TCM believes that our internal body is similar to our external world," Dr. Auth tells me. "The same way forces of nature need to find balance, so do our bodies. The balance of life force energies, such as yin and yang, all need to be in balance both in quantity and quality to have true health." In TCM, imbalance translates to illness, Dr. Auth explains. So when you're suffering from something, whether it's chronic pain, digestion problems, tight muscles, stress, or yes, even, heartbreak, acupuncture aims to get you back to equilibrium.
Even if you aren't currently experiencing any of the above symptoms, Dr. Auth says the treatment is actually preventative, so you can "keep yourself healthy and tackle problems, like stress, before they manifest as chronic conditions with physical symptoms."
Oh, and by the way, the needles are pretty much painless. Occasionally, I felt a pinch depending on the spot, but after a minute, the sensation dissipated, and I melted into the blanketed, heated (!!) table.
How can acupuncture improve mental health?
If you're currently doubting the effectiveness of acupuncture when it comes to treating issues like stress or anxiety, you're not alone. I was very cynical going into my first treatment. I kind of secretly thought it might be a hoax — I wasn't sure I believed in the whole good juju, holistic approach thing.
Turns out I was wrong. While more high-quality studies are still needed on the topic, studies in rats have shown an increase in serotonin levels after just 20 minutes of treatment — with levels remaining elevated up to 120 minutes after the treatment. And a 2021 meta-analysis of twenty randomized controlled trials published in the Annals of General Psychiatry found that acupuncture had a positive effect on patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
So why does it help with anxiety? The practice of acupuncture triggers a chemical response in your body. Studies have shown that acupuncture increases the activity of serotonin, dopamine, and inhibitory amino acids like GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Dr. Auth says that the release of these "happy" hormones "give you a feeling of well-being and happiness," and the increase in inhibitory amino acids like GABA will lead to relaxation. Put another way? "Think of it as instant and effortless meditation," she says.
"Serotonin is a key chemical that is known to help stabilize our mood and give us feelings of happiness," adds Andy Felton, Ph.D., assistant professor and licensed counselor at University of Wisconsin. "So if you can release more serotonin, you may feel less sad and feel like your emotions are more manageable or balanced."
How can acupuncture help you heal from a breakup?
As for helping to heal heartbreak specifically, Dr. Auth also notes that after a breakup (or um, after hearing our ex has moved on), our minds are often stuck on an endless loop of the same thoughts. "Not only can acupuncture help to relax the mind, but it also stimulates the release of chemicals similar to being in love," she explains. "When we are in love, our bodies release serotonin and dopamine. Once these same hormones are released with acupuncture, we are reminded that it is possible to feel good again without our ex and we begin to move on."
Felton agrees that the key to moving on is realizing that one person or relationship doesn't hold the key to these pleasurable serotonin-fueled feelings. "These chemicals are released in all kinds of situations" — for instance by exercising, spending time in the sunshine, meditating, and yes, acupuncture — "they are not specific to relationships," he says.
If you've ever gone through a breakup, you may already know it doesn't just come with emotional distress — it's possible to feel physical pain from heartbreak because our "physical and emotional bodies are linked," explains Rachel E. Nanney, MS, LPC-S, a licensed counselor for Texas-based Connections Wellness Group. "When one is off the other one can be affected," she says.
Since acupuncture has traditionally been used to restore balance to our body's flow of energy, it can relieve some of that emotionally-charged tension. "Many therapists are now incorporating the belief that humans store emotional pain on an energetic level in our physical bodies," Nanney explains. "Acupuncture can trigger a release of those emotions that have been stored in the body as well as increase feelings of positivity, wellness, and grounded energy."
Dr. Auth agrees that acupuncture can treat the physical pain that can accompany a breakup — as well as those sleepless nights and loss of appetite that can come with the territory. "Whether it's a pit in the stomach or tight shoulders, acupuncture can relax the muscles and reduce inflammation to support emotional and physical wellness," she explains. "Acupuncture also helps to reduce stress and its effects on the digestive system and eating habits," says Dr. Auth. I can attest, it really did loosen that knot in my stomach that I'd felt ever since my ex re-entered my brain, and my sleep has improved too — both imperative parts of recovery.
Acupuncture points to target at home after a breakup:
OK, so now for the fun part: my sessions. My initial visit to Wthn felt more like a therapy session: I spilled my guts, oversharing all the gory details about my broken heart that refused to mend. When I came to, I thought, Wow, I just hit her with all the details of my sad love life for zero reason. But little did I know, all of this information was helping Dr. Auth map out the appropriate acupoints for me.
A quick reminder from earlier: specific spots on the body target certain concerns. So for my issues (anxiety, depression, OCD, all amplified by heartbreak), there were a select number of acupoints that were important to hit: spleen 6, Taiyang, and Pericardium 6. And you can actually reap the benefits of targeting these spots at home, without any needles.
This point is located above the inside of your ankle and will target your spleen in order to balance hormones and reduce stress, according to Dr. Auth. You can find it about a palm's distance (three inches) above your inner ankle. For at-home practice, Dr. Auth says you can "rub the area between the shinbone and the back of the calf taking 10 long, slow, deep breaths." Repeat on the other side.
This point is meant to calm your mind and is located at your temples. According to Dr. Auth, the temples have been treated for thousands of years and can also address headaches. Try it sans needles by placing your index and middle fingers on the temples before rubbing in a circular motion while "slowly breathing in and out for ten deep breaths." Next, Dr. Auth says to "rest your fingers in the center of your temples and hold the point for two more deep breaths."
This acupoint is on the inside of your wrist "between the two ropey tendons a couple inches up from the wrist," says Dr. Auth. It's famously known for helping with motion sickness but can also "soothe anxiety and promote deeper sleep." For a quick fix, press your thumb to the point with firm, yet comfortable, pressure while taking 10 deep breaths. Then move on to the other wrist.
Acupuncture has many other benefits, even if you're not suffering from anxiety or depression. Reference the graphic below to find the acupuncture pressure points respective to your qualms.
How soon does acupuncture begin to work?
So you probably don't want to hear this, but the answer is it varies, and it may take time. Everyone is different and the healing process may be hindered or helped by outside factors. That being said, Dr. Auth says while you can expect to feel "lifted and rejuvenated" after each session, it can take several weeks to months to feel its full effects. Your acupuncturist will work with you to create a customized plan of action to help you kickstart the healing process.
Personally, I noticed a difference after about three or four sessions, besides the immediate gratification of deep relaxation and escape from everyday stressors that came with each visit. I just felt lighter, happier, and more hopeful. I looked forward to each treatment and would leave the studio feeling rejuvenated.
After a couple of months, there was a serious decrease in my anxiety. It's important to note that I've also paired my acupuncture practices with talk therapy and medication, as well as journaling, and occasional meditation.
FYI though, it's not a replacement for other mental health treatment.
All the experts unanimously agreed on this one: acupuncture is not a replacement for other mental health treatments, like traditional talk therapy, which can provide new coping skills to help restore and maintain the balance people are looking for after a breakup, Felton says.
So as you'd expect, while plenty of psychotherapists, like Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., author of Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today, believe in the benefits of acupuncture, they also believe it's imperative to combine it with help from a mental health pro. "If the emotion isn't talked about, it won't be properly released, and the relief will be temporary," she tells me.
That said, if you're already in therapy, adding acupuncture into the mix can potentially amplify its effects and release any emotions that have become "backed-up", Nanney says. Coupling therapy with acupuncture — or even trigger point massage, bodywork, breathwork, yoga, guided imagery meditation, EFT (tapping) — can all "help process deeper trauma or even help balance certain surface-level emotion," she explains.
Dr. Auth agrees that the best mode of treatment is to combine both therapy and TCM practices like acupuncture. "Talk therapy can cut to the heart of the issue, raise awareness and give you the tools to change deeply rooted behavior, whereas acupuncture can alter your brain chemistry and help you release the past and move into the present moment," she says.
The bottom line on acupuncture for a breakup:
After a few months of weekly sessions, I can report that my anxiety is much less severe and frequent. I feel happier and more confident — Dr. Auth even told me I was glowing and I'll take it! Not to mention, I barely care or think about my ex these days; hell I even have a new boyfriend. (The most serious since my breakup.)
So has acupuncture cured my OCD and rid me of anxiety? No, of course not. But it doesn't need to — I'm not looking for a quick fix. But did it help me accept and come to terms with the things that I cannot change? Absolutely. Did it allow me to finally move on from my past relationship trauma? You bet.
Supplementing my existing mental health practices with acupuncture has given me that additional release of serotonin and dopamine to help me on my journey to happiness. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, everyone responds differently to treatment — acupuncture may change your life or you might not experience any noticeable results. All I know is it can't hurt (really it doesn't hurt) to give it a try. At the very least, you'll get a nice relaxing session that may even lead to falling asleep on the table ("We call this an acu-nap!" says Dr. Auth). Best case scenario, you'll stop caring about your toxic ex and land yourself a better partner at the end of it.