The brain needs stimulation. There is a very fine line between being relaxed and being bored. Prisoners placed in solitary confinement for a long period with nothing to distract them end up becoming paranoid, delusional and, finally, insane. At the other extreme, when the brain is constantly being asked to process too much information at the same time, we become stressed and miserable.
Our nervous system is programmed to respond to stress by increasing the secretion of the adrenalin hormone. This boosts the heart rate, sending more blood to the brain to increase alertness and concentration, and to the muscles to prepare them to fight off potential physical threats.
When we live in a stressful environment, our mind gradually gets overwhelmed by the overstimulation and we begin to experience difficulties making rational decisions. In the long term, our sense of perception becomes distorted, and anxiety gradually sets in.
Anxiety can be characterised as a fear of the unknown. Obviously, it is quite normal to sometimes feel anxious when a situation is temporarily beyond our control. For example, when our taxi is running late to take us to the airport, or when we are waiting for some exam results. In contrast, General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) occurs when an irrational fear of being unable to cope with adversity sets in. We worry constantly about potential threats, we are unable to relax, memories of previously encountered stressful situations get our heart racing, we become restless, and we have difficulties breathing. As we attempt to avoid the potential encounters that will make us uncomfortable, we become a prisoner of our own mind.
In Australia, around 6% of the general population of all ages will suffer from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in their lifetime. This is classified as someone who has experienced anxiety symptoms for over six months. A sufferer can have great difficulty dealing with everyday situations like working, socialising, or studying. Sometimes even the smallest domestic mishaps can be seen as a catastrophe. This can lead to panic attacks, or Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour.
Since the symptoms tend to develop gradually, they are not always obvious to outsiders, and many of those affected will often suffer in silence for a long time before seeking professional help. In addition, many sufferers are reluctant to take long term prescription drugs, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines, often with good reasons. According to the British Medical Association (British National Formulary 2009) "All these drug treatments have side effects, and many may cause withdrawal, or discontinuation symptoms."
Alternative approaches such as meditation, breathing exercises and mindfulness can be effective in developing coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Techniques (CBT) can also be very beneficial, but the long term benefits will be increased if the release of stress hormones in the brain can be regulated at the same time, without the additional side effects of prescription drugs.
Although there has been a lot of controversy regarding the effects of acupuncture on the nervous system, this is beginning to change. Recent studies have finally clearly demonstrated the effects acupuncture can have on the brain. In April 2013, the respected Medical Journal of Endocrinology published the results of research study, which demonstrated that acupuncture can reduce the release of stress hormones in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. My personal favourite is a BBC medical program called "The Science of Acupuncture" which is available on You Tube. It shows a team of British scientists using an MRI machine to demonstrate the effects of acupuncture on the brain of a volunteer during a treatment.
In addition, acupuncture has the advantage of being able to effectively treat associated anxiety symptoms such as insomnia, migraine, respiratory and digestive disorders.
Unfortunately, many anxiety sufferers are unaware of the alternative forms of treatments that are available. A recent British health survey discovered that, while 92% of anxiety sufferers would be open to trying complementary medicine, fewer that two thirds were aware acupuncture could help with their conditions.
In my own acupuncture practice in Sydney, I have found that in severe chronic anxiety cases, a two pronged approach combining Oriental medicine with counselling can be the most effective. A trained psychologist can teach the patients new behavioural habits to help them take control of stressful situations, while my role as an acupuncturist is to provide a fertile environment for these changes to take place - trimming away the adverse physical body responses like a gardener would with a replanted flower that has been under attack.
Olivier Lejus MHSc, BHSc is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney. www.olejusacupuncture.com
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com