Can Reiki Help with Anxiety?
The alternative therapy is being used more and more for emotional well-being.
By Julia Malacoff | Jan 27, 2018
As the less-is-more approach to health and medicine gains traction, more people are turning to alternative treatments to deal with both mental and physical health issues. Chances are if you tell your doctor you want to try essential oils, acupuncture, or even cupping as part of your game plan to combat a certain ailment, she won’t bat an eye. Along with that, energy healing of all kinds is gaining traction, Reiki being the most popular—especially for emotional well-being and in particular, anxiety. Unlike crystal healing, however, mainstream medicine experts say there may actually be something to the practice. (Related: What Is Crystal Light Therapy?)
What Is Reiki?
“Reiki is a combination of the Japanese words ‘Rei,’ which means ‘great spirit,’ ‘God,’ or ‘higher power’ and ‘Ki,’ which refers to the spiritual energy of all living things,” says Scott Carroll, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and author who has studied indigenous energy healing systems. Ki is a similar concept to “chi” in Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) and “prana” in Ayurveda, and is thought to flow through chakras, meridians (major channels), and nadis (minor channels) in the body, which are part of the aura that surrounds the body, Dr. Carroll explains. “Just as in acupuncture, disruptions of the flow of energy through chakras, meridians, and nadis and collections of negative energy in the aura are thought to cause both physical disease and psychological issues, such as anxiety.”
Worth noting: Even though Reiki utilizes some of the same ideas as TCM and Ayurveda, its practice isn’t as long-standing. Reiki, as we know it today, was developed about 100 years ago, although the concept of energy healing can be traced back much further than that in Japanese culture.
So how does it work, exactly? In theory, “Reiki practitioners heal by directing the purest form of Ki that comes from God or ‘great spirit’ to flow through the disrupted channels or to break up the negative energy collections in the aura,” Dr. Carroll says. “Practitioners visualize certain symbols to more precisely open these channels or break up negative energy and then replace it with the ‘God Ki.’ Since Reiki works on the energetic system of the body and isn’t directly physical, it can be used in a complementary fashion with Western medicine and psychiatry,” he adds. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Energy Work—and Why You Should Try It)
Does It Reduce Anxiety?
Reiki is popular for dealing with all kinds of health issues, but it’s especially gaining traction in the mental health community. “Because Reiki is intended to induce relaxation in a manner similar to yoga or acupuncture and attenuate people’s stress response—or the release of cortisol from their adrenal glands and activation of the sympathetic nervous system—it can be a creative and useful way to reduce stress,” says Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D., associate psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
And conventional doctors aren’t hesitant to say that the practice might be helpful for a variety of patients. “Reiki may be beneficial for several issues, including anxiety, depression, pain management, and even for improved emotional coping with major medical illnesses,” says Aparna Iyer, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in Dallas, and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The research on Reiki’s effectiveness, though, leaves a lot to be desired. “While many people with depression, anxiety, and various other mental health issues report a significant benefit from Reiki on their mental health, the studies are few and far between and the evidence-based data is limited,” Dr. Iyer points out. “Although some studies show no benefit, many small studies do indicate that Reiki’s benefits on mental health are promising.” And fortunately, she says, the data doesn’t suggest that there’s harm done by it.
“People find Reiki treatments relaxing to the body and nourishing for the soul,” says Kathy Morelli, L.M.T., L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor and Reiki practitioner. Plus, lots of people with anxiety are looking for non-pharmaceutical treatment options, and Reiki definitely provides that. “There’s a lot of anxiety in our fast-paced world, and people are looking for something besides Xanax to help them,” Morelli says. This is especially true for those who are already dealing with an addiction since some of the most common anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) are habit-forming.
But it’s important to note that Reiki shouldn’t be used as the *only* treatment for anxiety. “I’m a believer in complementary therapies, not alternative therapies,” Morelli explains. That means taking an integrative approach to treating anxiety, not one that rejects Western medicine. “Most people don’t want to abandon their regular medical care—they’re just adding some complementary treatments in as well. So, in counseling a person with anxiety and depression, we use psychotherapy and medications as the conventional treatment, and we can also add in complementary therapies to help healing on multiple levels,” she explains. (BTW, here’s why you should stop saying you have anxiety if you really don’t.)
What to Expect
If you decide to give Reiki a go for anxiety (or anything else), it can help to know what the session might be like beforehand. “Expect the practitioner to treat you with respect and to create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance,” Morelli says. “Reiki is done fully clothed and the practitioner uses no oils.” The treatment itself is non-manipulative, which means Reiki won’t interfere with any other medical treatments. “The practitioner will either very lightly touch the receiver or not touch them at all, as she channels life force energy into the areas of the energy field of the receiver,” she adds.
And even though the research on Reiki has mixed findings, what is consistent in the studies are the lived experiences of people during a treatment, Morelli says. “Most people report that Reiki is a deeply relaxing experience and their emotional distress evens out. Some report that it helps in letting go of emotional trauma.” Some sensations that people report during the session, according to Morelli, are: warmth or tingling, deep relaxation, relief from mental or emotional stress, a feeling of nurturing and general well-being, and relief from aches and pains.
Results might depend on what you’re expecting to get from the treatment. “In my experience, responses to treatments like Reiki have a lot to do with whether or not the patient is open to it,” Dr. Carroll says. “People who are open and comfortable tend to benefit, while those who are doubtful tend not to get much out of it.” When you think about it, this isn’t *so* different from how people respond to psychotherapy; the more you put in, the more you get out. While talking to a therapist about your anxiety is a much more evidence-based way to deal with mental health issues, there’s no reason not to add multiple tools to your arsenal to fight them—alternative or otherwise.