Today, I had the privilege of having not one, but two guests on the show! Alexa Hulsey and Trey Brackman, both licensed acupuncturists came on to talk to us all about acupuncture and how it can be helpful for anxiety among other things.
- What is acupuncture and how does it work?
- What happens during an acupuncture session?
- Modalities acupuncturist use for patients who feel anxious about acupuncture needles.
- Some theories about how acupuncture helps with anxiety
- Acupuncture and spiritual connection
Links and Resources:
Transcript of Episode 23
Hope For Anxiety and OCD, episode 23. Today on the show we are talking all about acupuncture. I was able to interview Alexa Hulsey and Trey Brackman from in circle acupuncture. They are both a licensed acupuncturist and they talk to us about what an acupuncture session looks like and how acupuncture can benefit anxiety.
So let’s dive right in.
Alexa: My name is Alexa Hulsey. I’m a licensed acupuncturist. I have been practicing since 2005. And I am the owner of Encircle Acupuncture here in Nashville. We have two locations in Nashville. I like to say that I became an acupuncturist because I wanted to help people. And then I became a community acupuncturist because I wanted to help a lot of people. Community acupuncture is set up in a way to make acupuncture affordable and accessible to really anyone who needs it because we offer our services in an affordable way.
Carrie: Awesome and Trey?
Trey: How did I get into acupuncture. That’s almost 30 years ago. I got my first acupuncture treatment right out of high school and decided that that’s what I wanted to do after my own experience. I’ve been practicing now for 18 years in a community-based setting. And I did private room acupuncture for a long time and was really hard for me because I couldn’t do it with enough people and it wasn’t affordable enough for them to get it enough to be beneficial to them. And when I found Alexa, nine years ago, I actually went into one of her clinics to get acupuncture and I was like, this is what I want to do and how I want to do it. I’ve been with Alexa full-time for nine years this year.
Carrie: So tell us a little bit about the difference between what you just said there about maybe a private acupuncture versus a community acupuncture clinic.
Trey: So private room acupuncture is one person in one room, typically on a massage table and community acupuncture, we have a big room and pre-COVID, 21 or two chairs in east Nashville. And in Bellevue, 13, 14 chairs recliners, and you’ll have a patient every 10 minutes and in a community acupuncture setting. Typically in private room, you’ll have a patient every 30 or 45 minutes. So you can treat a lot more people in a day than you can do in community acupuncture than you can in private room.
Alexa: Community acupuncture really gets back to the root of how acupuncture has been traditionally practiced for thousands of years in China and in other Asian countries. Acupuncture was typically done in groups. In some areas, an acupuncturist would travel to a village and just treat people in somebody’s house. And so our set-up, it kind of feels like a living room. Everybody’s in a comfortable chair and it makes it so that we can see more people and that way we can charge less.
Carrie: Awesome. I really liked that concept in terms of receiving care and receiving health in a community setting. Whereas a lot of times in America, our healthcare is so individualized and isolated at times too, because of that. That’s really neat. A lot of the listeners probably have never had an acupuncture session so we just want to talk with them a little bit about what does that even look like?
Alexa: Sure. I’ll walk you through what a typical acupuncture session is like. We start like pretty much any medical appointment with you, filling out some paperwork, we’ll ask about your medical history and then we’ll do a brief intake with a new patient.
The goal of our intake is really to just figure out why are you here? What can we help you with? What’s really bothering you. And we try to really focus in on a patient’s chief complaint and what is going to be the thing that we really want to focus on. What patients will find often is that if we focus on one or two things for their first few treatments, then all of these other things that they might not have even mentioned to us also start to feel better because everything is connected. So it’s kind of fun when that happens. We really focus on a patient’s chief complaint.
We will recommend a treatment plan based on what they’re seeking help for and what our experience is in treating that condition. A treatment plan varies, but generally people need a course of treatment and not just one acupuncture treatment. So it’s like taking vitamins. You can’t just take one vitamin, you got to take a lot. So you’ll need a course of treatment. Usually, sometimes we have people come in once a week. Sometimes we want them to come in every day if their pain is so severe that they can barely walk. So we talk about a treatment plan.
And then we’ll have a patient, they’ll be in a recliner in our clinic we use points on the extremities. Patients will just roll up their sleeves and pant legs. They don’t have to change clothes or anything like that. And we will needle a few points on the head, arms, and legs. Usually, we’ll use somewhere between 10 and 20 needles during a treatment. Once the needles are in, we cover up the patient with a blanket and walk away. And then that’s when the real magic happens is when a patient is resting with the needles in. We typically let them rest for about an hour and then we’ll take the needles out and, and the treatment is done. So really most of the acupuncture treatment is the patient lying there, relaxing, doing nothing.
Carrie: That sounds like a good time to me, just relaxing and doing nothing. I have had acupuncture and I did find it to be super relaxing. And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to have you both on the show because we’re talking a lot about anxiety.
It’s interesting. The point that you brought up there, Alexa, about how when you work on one issue, you don’t always realize the domino effect that’s going to happen If you’re working with someone in terms of pain and then all of a sudden their pain is relieved. They notice they start sleeping better and then they notice it’s like a ripple that happens and that’s really neat. Or then maybe they come up with some other things like therapy, they come up with some other things that they want to work on once one thing is relieved. It’s like, “well, maybe can you help me with this too?”
Alexa: Yeah, that definitely has,
Trey: I would say 90% of the time. Yeah.
Carrie: Yeah. In terms of anxiety and pain and other physical issues, sometimes when you have physical issues the anxiety surrounding dealing with those issues can be so great and almost worse than the actual medical problem that you’re having right now.
I know that happened to me a couple of years ago, I was dealing with some digestive issues and someone said, “Well, maybe you’re just stressed about it.” And I said, or “maybe you’re just stressed in general and that’s causing these digestive issues. And I said, “I don’t think you understand my stress is from the digestive issues” because I can’t figure out what’s going on and how to fix it. This is not a psychosomatic complaint.
Alexa: Anxiety and depression are huge components especially of pain conditions. Dealing with pain for a long time that does become depressing. You start to think my life is never going to be the same again.
You become anxious about what the future holds. And then those anxiety and depressive feelings can compound the pain that you’re feeling and taking a pain medication can help the pain, but it’s not going to do anything for your depression and anxiety. Whereas what we do with acupuncture is a much more holistic approach.
Carrie: Can you explain a little bit of from maybe what’s been studied about how does this actually work?
Trey: Well, there have been a lot of modern-day studies that through MRIs and thermal imaging, that show that it reduces inflammation, improves blood flow, can stimulate hormone releases, balance your hormones, but how the body actually knows to do that when we take the needles and put them in these specific points, there is no definitive answer as to how the body knows to do that when we’re doing acupuncture, but it works. It’s been working for thousands of years and just in the 18 years I’ve practiced, just observing people come in and get better and reduce their pain or help their anxiety or their OCD or their arthritis in their knees, whatever it is, how it’s doing that, I’m not sure anyone has really discovered the real true one answer to that.
Carrie: I’d love a good mystery and intrigue, but I’m also very intuitive. So I’m kind of in that camp of like, well, if it works let’s use it. You know, I don’t need you to always explain everything to me on a scientific study level.
Testimonials are very valuable. Do you think that this is a little bit of an offshoot of a question, but things like acupuncture and chiropractic and holistic wellness, a lot of times aren’t valued or paid for by insurance companies. Do you think that we’ll get to a point where we shift from a disease model to a health model at all? Do you think that we’re making any strides towards that?
Alexa: I do think that we’re making some strides. Acupuncture is being used by the military and is being paid for by the military. There is talk of acupuncture being used by medicare to treat acupuncture specifically for treating lower back pain is going to be covered by medicare one of these days. Trey probably has been hearing the same line too, since he went to acupuncture school. I’ve since I enrolled in acupuncture school, I’ve heard insurance reimbursement for acupuncture universally is just around the corner. It still hasn’t happened.
So our work around has been just, well, let’s not even worry about insurance. Just charge a price that everyone can afford. Our prices are less than a copay and now we don’t even have to worry about insurance. We don’t have to fill out insurance forms and that gives people a lot more flexibility because insurance will usually limit, some insurance does pay for acupuncture.
We will usually limit the number of treatments a person can get or what it can be used for. The way that we approach it is, let’s just let the patient decide what they need and just make it available to them.
Carrie: And the community based acupuncture model, I just wanted to point that out that that’s not just in the Nashville area that people can actually go online and find community-based acupuncture in their area.
Trey: Yeah, worldwide.
Carrie: Oh, worldwide. That’s awesome.
Alexa: Worldwide, absolutely. There are clinics everywhere. If you do an internet search for community acupuncture, type in the name of your city. Not every town has a community acupuncture clinic, unfortunately, but it becomes more and more prevalent.
Carrie: Whenever you guys want to come to Rutherford county, you’re welcome. It’s open invitation.
What about if people are anxious surrounding needles, if people say, “I don’t really know if I can do that acupuncture thing, because she just said she was going to stick a lot of needles in me.”
Trey: We actually see that quite a bit and my personal approach to that is I’ll use four needles on somebody who’s typically a little bit anxious.
You can do a really good treatment with just four needles, especially for someone who has anxiety surrounding needles. And that first one or two treatments for them is about them getting used to the idea and feeling acupuncture needles go in and realizing that it doesn’t hurt. I have several patients that are still needle-phobic, but they come anyway because it really helps them, but they just put in their earbuds, turn on their meditation or whatever, their music, and they close their eyes and they just don’t watch and then they’re fine. Usually, I start very slow with them and just do four, maybe four, sometimes six needles, and go from there.
Carrie: It could be a really good exposure for some people that have that specific phobia, it might help them have a more positive experience. But also the needle size that you’re talking about is a lot smaller than a typical needle.
Trey: Yeah. Two of your hairs together. They’re like 36 gauge. They’re tiny.
Carrie: Yeah. So maybe that helps relieve some people’s anxiety here thinking about trying acupuncture. It’s not as bad.
Alexa: It’s truly not as bad as you think. A lot of patients report that they don’t even feel the needles. Which if you’ve never had it, it seems impossible, how can I not feel the needle going in me, but it is because they are so, so thin and fine. We did this more before the pandemic, but if someone wanted to bring in a friend or a family member who was anxious about the acupuncture, we would invite them to come in, just like say, “Hey, come sit next to your friend and watch what happens and just relax. See what it’s like.” It’s more difficult to do that now during the pandemic obviously because we have a lot more restraints on how many people we can have, but our model does allow for friends and family to come in together. So if somebody wants to try it and they want to bring a friend for moral support and the two of you get treatment at the same time, we can do that.
Trey: And we’ve had lots of children over the years and teenagers who have come in to get it and their parents will come and sit with them and hold their hand while they get their first few needles. We’ve done that as well for four kids.
Carrie: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful for people to know that this is a good option for children and adolescents too. A lot of times people are looking for more natural remedies because they don’t necessarily want to put their child or teenager on medication right away, and this might be a good alternative option for them to look into.
Carrie: Anything else that you wanted to say in terms of how you’ve seen acupuncture be helpful for anxiety?
Alexa: I think we could probably both speak to a lot of cases where we’ve seen acupuncture be helpful for anxiety. I would say that, that is probably the number two thing that brings people into our clinic. The first being pain. We do treat a lot of pain and the second is probably anxiety. We see so many people with anxiety. People don’t always have great results with some of the pharmaceutical options that are out there to treat anxiety.
They might have side effects, or they just don’t want to be taking that and they’re needing solutions. I don’t know how much we want to get into sort of the theory of how it helps anxiety.
Trey mentioned that there’ve been some studies showing that acupuncture reduces inflammation, increases circulation. The way that we look at it is that acupuncture is going to basically remove blockages in your body. So we look at the body as a system of energetic flow and we call that energy Qi in Chinese medicine. Qi reaches every part of your body and it’s really what makes us alive. Qi gets blocked easily by lots of different factors.
And so we’re really using the needles just to remove those blockages and restore balance, and then the body does. The work on its own that it needs to do to be into a balanced and harmonious state with something like anxiety, a lot of times we’re working on the heart system and that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone with anxiety has heart disease, their blood pressure might be fine.
Their blood flow might be fine, but there’s an imbalance there in that system. The heart is the center of the emotions in traditional Chinese medicine and it gets out of balance easily when there’s a lot of external stressors. And so a lot of times we’re working on restoring balance to that system.
The heart system also is related to sleep. So people with anxiety often experience a lot of problems with sleep. So we can work on those things in tanem. Sleep is one of those things that we’ll often get better without someone expecting when they’re coming in for acupuncture. And then they’ll come back, like you said, after a few treatments and say, “oh, I’m sleeping better. And I wasn’t expecting that.”
Carrie: That makes a lot of sense to me in terms of what you were saying about the heart because a lot of people who experience anxiety have a more rapid heart rate and their stress system is getting over-activated in times where it doesn’t need to be activated. It’s also connected to pain because the pain pathway in our brain also runs through that limbic system controlling the fight, flight or freeze response. It’s interesting how all of those things are interconnected and then when we’re out of balance, as you said, and something gets stuck, if you can release that it’s like the body already knows what to do to heal itself, which is very similar to a type of therapy I do called EMDR, which works at the brain level. And it’s kind of from the same premise like your body and your brain already know what to do to reach that point of healing. It’s just a matter of getting you unstuck. So that’s really neat.
Alexa: Yes, absolutely.
Trey: I always referred to it as getting out of your own way and letting your body do what it already knows how to do.
Carrie: That’s good. Let’s talk about maybe people who are coming from a Christian faith perspective. I did a previous show on mindfulness, which was super fun and we talked about origins of mindfulness and how that can integrate with Christian faith. I think when things come out of Eastern origin, some Christians are like, “Oh, that’s not Christian.[00:20:46] That’s more rooted in Buddhism and we have to watch out for that. It could be a spiritual practice that goes against our faith.” Would you mind speaking to that concern a little bit?
Alexa: Sure, absolutely. Our approach, first of all with acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, spirituality is a huge part of health. And so it’s important that a person feels that their whatever practices they’re doing are aligned with their spirituality because that’s going to promote healing. Traditional Chinese medicine comes from a tradition of Daoism. It’s really rooted in Daoism and Daosim isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy.
And it’s a way of looking at the world and the body and health based on observation of nature. So we take those observations of nature and then apply them to the body. So for example, we talk about the pathways of chief low in the body. We relate those to bodies of water, and some points are described as being like springs or like rivers or like wells because those points behave the way that those bodies of water would, it would behave in nature.
So Daoism can really be in alignment with any religious beliefs. And for that reason, a person of any religious faith can get acupuncture, can be treated by an acupuncturist, and still rest assured that the treatment is going to support their spirituality. It’s going to support their religion. It’s not going to be in conflict with anything that they believe.
Carrie: Do you find that some people have spiritual experiences, like when they’re receiving acupuncture like having a sense of spiritual connectedness?
Trey: Yes, and that was one of the things I was actually just going to touch on in all the years I’ve practiced. I’ve worked on a lot of people who have come in and are Christian and a great many of them over the years have told me one of the things that they love about coming to acupuncture is that it allows them time to pray and when they get their needles because it clears out all the rest of the chatter that goes on in our heads. They turn their phone off. They take their smartwatch off and they truly just rest and it allows them to really actually be clearer about what they’re praying for, or who they’re praying for. And I have seen and heard that a lot over the years that it just clears out the clutter of the brain and it allows them just to focus on that one thing and in that way.
Carrie: That’s awesome because I think I have had that experience in terms of receiving acupuncture. I don’t remember why, but I remember that I ended up crying one of my first few sessions and it was just this, I can’t really explain it other than there was a sense of spiritual connectedness to God in that moment through prayer. And just that sense of being able to just be and just rest and be present is really powerful. Something that we don’t do enough in our society is just allow ourselves to be and to rest and to give our bodies space and openness to heal or to connect with something outside ourselves.
Alexa: It’s so powerful and it’s so healing when you can get into that state where you’re feeling connected to the divine and you’re feeling really in alignment with your own spirituality. It’s a huge part of healing and also when people are going through a difficult time with their health, they really rely on their faith to get them through that.
I love what Trey was saying about people using that time to pray because faith is what gets many of our patients through their most difficult challenges.
Trey: And when there’s a lot of people in the clinic when the clinic is full and everybody’s in there, and they have their needles in and they’re all in their space, you can feel the hum of the energy in the room where all the people in here are doing the exact same thing.
They’re there, they’re resting, they’re healing. They’re letting go of their stress, their anxiety and you can feel that hum when there’s two, three, four, five, six, seven, 10, or 12 people in the room, all doing the same thing. If you’re paying attention, you can feel that hum of all of them trying to heal and whatever level they’re trying to get it to.
Carrie: Does that feel like a lot of energy or does that feel like a release of energy? I’m just curious.
Trey: It depends on the people. Sometimes it’s really heavy and strong and it’s like you’re parting it to get to the people and sometimes it’s light and airy. It depends, I think on who’s in the clinic and why they’re here and what they’re praying about or meditating about or focusing on while they’re here. So the feel of it actually changes.
Carrie: That’s very interesting.
Alexa: And it’s cool because in that way, each patient in there is contributing to the healing of the other patients as well. You’re creating this collective healing space. So we’re all helping each other, which is not a typical approach in healthcare.
Like you said, it’s usually very individualized, very isolated, but our approach is we all have something to offer. We can all give and receive in the process of healing. So it’s beautiful to be able to be a part of that. And Carrie, you mentioned about having an emotional release and that is not unusual at all for someone to have an emotional release during a treatment or after treatment crying. Sometimes people laugh.
And I noticed that especially with patients who are dealing with anxiety because anxiety can be so much work to manage just in your daily life. Just trying to navigate situations that people without anxiety wouldn’t find difficult when you have anxiety. It is difficult whether it’s going to the grocery store or having a conversation with a coworker.
So it’s so much harder to do some of those things that when you finally do get the chance to rest and relax, you don’t realize how much emotion you’ve been holding on to and then that release feels great and it’s an important part of healing.
Carrie: That makes a lot of sense to me because it does take a lot of energy when you have anxiety, too, whether it’s to get through the day or sometimes that energy is used to suppress other painful emotions and that makes sense to me.
So we’re kind of winding down to the end of our interview, but I do want to say that I’m going to put some links in the show notes for those who are local to look up Encircle Acupuncture and for those who are not local to look up community acupuncture near them so that people can join in on this experience.
Since the show is called Hope for Anxiety and OCD, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope at a time that you received hope from God or another person.
Alexa: I’ll go first. I feel so lucky because I get to hear stories of hope pretty much on a daily basis from our patients. It is very inspiring to be around. One patient in particular, who has really inspired me as a patient who a couple of years ago received a very scary cancer diagnosis. She had been coming to the clinic for a long time, just for various ailments, and then she received this diagnosis and it was so scary but she was determined to do what she had to do and she followed her doctor’s advice to the letter.
She did all of her chemo. She does all of her radiation. She did all of that. She put a lot of trust in what her doctor was recommending and at the same time, she also said, “I’ve got to do more. This is the fight of my life and so I have to be all in.” She did more research and homework than I’ve seen most patients do.
And she really became an expert on healing her cancer and she did, she beat it, and she’s more than a year cancer-free now. Even some of her nurses have made comments to her, like, “wow, you are really doing so much to heal.” And her response has kind of been like, “well, you know, I have to.” She’s a very spiritual person and really relied on her faith to get her through
the scariest time in her life. And I still see her every week and she’s doing great. She’s just to me, an example of courage in the face of something really scary and using that as an opportunity to learn. She’s come out of this even healthier than she was before. She’s a huge inspiration.
Carrie: That’s awesome.
Trey: I have several. I could probably filter through but mine is oddly more personal, which is normally not what I would share. Nine years ago, Alexa and I hashed out an agreement on a little over nine years ago, hashed out an agreement on a napkin actually. And I lost the job that I had and I called Alexa that same Friday at like noon.
She called me back at two o’clock and I started the following week and it really has allowed me to do something I was ready to walk away from because it wasn’t fulfilling for me. And that totally changed in the nine years I’ve worked for you. We’ve treated hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s brought a lot of joy to me personally, and by extension to my wife and kids.
Carrie: That’s awesome.
Alexa: And Trey I just love that we’ve been working together for so long, but I think everybody can relate to that feeling of just being in a place where it’s just not right and you want to change and it’s scary to make a change, but you can do it. It can transform into something that you love. [00:32:00] So that’s an inspiration to me too, I’m glad you shared that.
Carrie: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show and for sharing with us, your wisdom and your experience with acupuncture and kind of letting all the newbies know what it’s like, and hopefully, it’ll encourage people to try it out sometime.
Alexa: I hope it does. Thank you for having us.
Carrie: You’re welcome.
I know I talked on this episode a little bit about my own experience with acupuncture. I wanted to do that because initially going into it. I was really nervous like is this going to be something that’s not in alignment with my Christian faith? And I did a lot of research, read everything on the website, as well as some other information on the internet about acupuncture and how it works and what the process was. And I said you know what, I don’t see anything for me personally that goes against the Bible or goes against the major tenants of Christian faith. I believe that acupuncture is one of the tools that God has given us to help heal our bodies and lead us towards a place of greater health.
And for you, it may or may not be for you and that’s okay. Hopefully, I won’t get any hateful emails on this issue. If I do, I’ll just ignore them and pay attention to the people that are enjoying the show.
Speaking of people who are enjoying the show, did you know that we have people who are listening all over the place, including Mt. Juliet, Tennessee? Which is not too far from here. All the way to West Lake Stevens, Washington, and Paradise, Nevada. I know that we have some people who are listening in Europe, Africa, and Australia as well. So, where are you listening from? Let us know by messaging me on Instagram or Facebook, I would love to hear from you. And if you aren’t following us there, please do.
Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By The Well Counseling in Smyrna, Tennessee. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum and audio editing is completed by Benjamin Bynam.
Until next time. May you be comforted by God’s great love for you.