Intuitively, we all know that what is on one’s face is reflective of more than just a superficial response to passing external conditions. Folk wisdom, such as but by no means limited to sayings like “fake it ’til you make it” and “keep looking like that and your face will freeze that way” and “the eyes are the windows of the soul” all point to the idea that there is more to facial expression than a continual loop that reflects stimulus and response. What a person’s facial expression reveals is but part of the picture. What we look like and what we feel like are connected and there are more ways than one, ultimately, to effect change from either side of the equation.
Is it possible for certain aesthetic procedures to change mood? How facial expression and mood are linked, in addition, raises further questions that go well beyond the fun factor of beauty treatments in and of themselves. Can aesthetic procedures actually help to regulate emotional states? If so, how? And which ones are most useful and why is this so? What can aesthetic regimens do to alleviate depression and anxiety, and how, potentially, can facial rejuvenation be a part of one’s mental healthcare routine? And how does it work, if indeed it works at all?
These are all worthy questions. As a soon-to-be graduate of AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine and a practicing clinical intern, I have seen firsthand the benefits of facial rejuvenation acupuncture on anxiety patients. In fact, I got the idea to try it on these populations because when I underwent facial acupuncture to see if it worked (it does!), my experience was such that I found it incredibly soothing to have my own facial muscles relaxed by treatment. In clinic and in my office, then, I started to notice the connection between facial treatments and mood and, over the course of this past year, I am steadily collecting not only practical experience in the art of making others feel beautiful and happy via Chinese medicine. I’m also gathering data to support my burgeoning theories on the topic.
I am happy to say that my program is highly supportive of Chinese medicine for aesthetic purposes. To that end, there have been not only special training seminars for practitioners who want to expand their skills. We also have had terms with clinical intern rotations that are dedicated to solely to facial rejuvenation and aesthetics. I was able to take the Mei Zen training that covers facial, neck, and abdominal aesthetic treatments about a year and a half ago. Following that experience, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to study with Dr. Wu. Soon after the seminar, which covered not only acupuncture but also tui na protocols, I signed on for an internship in facial rejuvenation and was lucky enough to have my own treatment room. An entire term learning under the direction of Dr. Wu in his role as clinical supervisor was invaluable.
True fact: some students and practitioners think that facial rejuvenation acupuncture is silly or frivolous. Myself, I view these protocols as a potential tool for psycho-emotional health and healing that go well beyond simple external factors. Do not get me wrong–I love a good facial just as much as anyone else does and I am perfectly open about being vain and wanting to remain beautiful until the very end. But I do fold beauty into larger pictures of holistic health and that bigger picture is, in effect, the focus of this blog post (if you’d like to read my blog post about beauty treatments for the sake of aesthetics, go here). In my experience, there is a clear link between one’s face and expression and the functional, practical lived experience of emotional wellbeing (or lack of same).
Connections between expression and emotion are a topic of interest in medi-spa treatment and research too. Botox as a potential tool against depression has been proposed and investigated by scientists in recent years. Researchers in Austin, for instance, found that injections into the area in between the eyebrows reduced depressive symptoms while injections to crow’s feet (smile lines) increased depressive symptoms. Though further research is needed, their findings suggest that communication between muscle and nerve activity affect mood. One of the coauthors of this study presented in Germany and declared that treating muscle interrupted feedback signals to the brain, an action that altered the habitual stimulus-response mechanisms that contribute to depression. From the perspective of cosmetic facial services, then, it is certainly arguable that Botox injections may well be of use to sufferers of this malady. Personally, and based on my experiences in clinic, I would guess that a Botoxed forehead would to some degree help to relieve depression. However, not everyone is in agreement with this tactic. In one popular press article (that has a robust comment section that discusses the pros and cons of Botox for mood control), the protagonist of the piece did not like the effects of a Botox-smooth forehead on her mood and relates that being unable to move her forehead left her feeling alienated and lonely.
Chinese medical tradition, for its part, places a high value on the idea of the entire body as a system that is part of a larger picture. We don’t look at just one piece as it stands alone. Thus, a face that reflects certain habitual emotions via the lines etched thereupon is not just a face in and of itself. It’s the product of many other factors and is part of a continuous interplay of these same elements. When we treat one aspect, we treat all by default. I started practicing acupuncture for facial rejuvenation on patients who came for just that in my dedicated clinic shift and eventually started doing forehead work on my anxiety and depression patients to great effect throughout all my clinics. I offer tui na for facial rejuvenation to patients in my office and there, too, I have begun to focus on the face in cases of mood disorder. My patients leave the encounter feeling happier and prettier or more handsome. Partially, of course, this is because any Chinese treatment addresses the whole self to correct the portion. But, in my estimation, it also is due to a change in muscle activity and facial expression. As my intern rotations progressed and my office practice has grown, I have learned to do at least some facial rejuvenation on these patients because I know that it will help their moods even if their ostensible issue is back ache or sinus trouble or whatever the case may be. And it never fails–patients of both acupuncture and tui na report increased calm, better mood, and a greater sense of self-regulation following treatment.
So how does this work? And which one is better for facial rejuvenation and mood, acupuncture or tui na? Well…that depends. My experience with Mei Zen and with the Dr. Wu method is that Mei Zen can be better for skin tone and it is very calming via the muscles of the face. It relies on a lot of needles, which not everyone loves (that would not be me–myself, I love lots of needles during treatment). Dr. Wu’s method is better for deep wrinkles, chin sculpting, and over-all wellbeing. It also relies on fewer needles. I really like both schools of thought, but I tend to prefer a more traditional Chinese approach. Consequently, my first choice usually is to go with the Wu method but that’s not always what I do. It really depends on the patient. What I have noticed, over and over, when working with anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD patients is that when I thread their forehead wrinkles and reduce them, the patients always marvel at how much calmer they feel afterward. They have smooth foreheads and peaceful hearts every time. I am convinced that the Botox research discussion regarding the interruption of feedback from muscle to mind and back and again is valid.
My work in the tui na office, on the other hand, is my own creation that relies on the training I received from my teacher and mentor, Dr. Fan. In a way, it is more personalized and focused on the individual because I manually assess the muscles of the face and perform careful, disciplined stimulation of the relevant areas. Depending on the client’s needs, I may do some cupping or guasha with a jade instrument in addition to the massage protocol. I will almost always use the jade roller for the jawline. I will find areas of tension in the neck, too, or maybe in the scalp, and relieve them by way of varying techniques. A facial rejuvenation tui na treatment will leave the face calm, smooth, and at its peak of optimum health. People tell me that it is way more soothing than a traditional aesthetic facial and I would agree with that. When I’m working on the face I’m also working on the whole body. Before I start, I do a traditional intake with all the TCM questions I would ask in any Chinese medicine scenario and I will attend to issues such as phlegm or heat by including brief attention to specific areas in other regions of the body that can support dispelling heat or reducing phlegm just as I do via acupuncture treatment. The face is part of the body and my goal, though focused on facial beauty, is to have the person get up from the table feeling genuinely good from head to toe.
When I am a licensed acupuncturist (this should be in about six months) I expect that I will continue to offer tui na treatments for the face in addition to needle-based protocols. Men and women alike want to look and feel their best no matter their age. As I ponder it, I think that the most effective treatment is going to be the one that you love, be it tui na or needles or both. But I would suggest trying both and discussing both protocols with your practitioner. Some people love practicing tui na (I certainly do) and truly enjoy the detail work that must be done in order to effect change on what are, in essence, small muscles (me, me, I love doing this!). Others prefer to stick with one or the other protocols for needling (trust me, it is great fun to insert needles in a person’s face and–if your practitioner has a light hand, which I’m told that I do, it won’t even hurt much at all). Whatever you choose, though, you can expect to feel happier in ways that you might not have expected.
At present, my focus is preparation for my board exams. However, in future, I will be writing up some case reports about facial rejuvenation, depression/anxiety, and Chinese medicine. So stay posted! And if you’d like to try facial tui na, feel free to contact me or you can go ahead and set up an appointment via my “book now” button here on this page. I think you will be happily surprised by what Chinese medicine can do, not just for your beauty but also for your mood. Try it, you’ll see!
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.