"The limbic system always wins." I still vividly remember these words, years after hearing them spoken by my undergrad A&P professor. He explained that it's nearly impossible to override this part of the brain, this part that inspires passion and love and rage. You could try to fight it, he told us, but if the limbic system gets fired up, it turns off the rationality switch in your head. You simply can't reason, can't use proper judgment, when this part of your brain is lit up. The limbic system is pure, raw response to emotion...and it rules all.
The older I get, the more I realize the truth of his statements. Yes, he was vastly oversimplifying the case, but we really are slaves to this piece of our mind. The limbic system is responsible for those bad decisions you make in the heat of passion. You know that person you swore, on all that was important to you, that you would never, ever call again? And then you smelled or heard or saw something that reminded you, so vividly, of how much they meant to you, once upon a time. Before you knew it, that limbic system was overriding every warning signal in your brain not to pick up the phone and call. Later, you blamed nostalgia, or alcohol, or hormones...but, no. You should have placed the blame on your amygdala. That's the part of the limbic system that ties memory and emotion together into a nice, neat little package.
Of course, we aren't completely powerless over the limbic system...at least, most of us aren't. If we were completely enslaved by it, there would be a lot more spontaneous punching in the world, and a lot less breaking up. You would be so wrapped up in the passion of your relationships, there would be no room for figuring out all the reasons why you shouldn't be together. Mental filters wouldn't exist. Thoughts would come into your head, then out of your mouth, with no break in between. The world would be a more honest, yet far more terrifying place.
So what does this have to do with acupuncture? Well, there are theories that this medicine can alter brain chemistry, and I believe this. After giving thousands of treatments, I know that those little needles affect far more than just the body. It can change the way people think. No, I haven't done any formal study on this, but I see it every single day. The irrational become rational. People let go of old behaviors that no longer serve them. Yes, patients leave feeling lighter and happier, but there is more to it than that. I'm beginning to wonder just how much of an effect this medicine has on the limbic system.
About a year ago, I had a patient start coming for sessions for basic balancing. Even from my limited interaction with her, I could sense how feisty and fiery she was. I liked her, a lot actually, but she definitely was not afraid to tell anyone what she really thought. She also clearly wore the pants in her relationships.
After three sessions, she came in to chat before her treatment. "Can I ask you something?" she asked.
"Of course," I answered.
"Well, I know that acupuncture can make you feel better physically, and I know you see people for depression and other emotional stuff, but has anyone ever come to see you for...jealousy?"
"Actually, there are points that can be used to change the way you view yourself in relation to the world around you. I can incorporate this into the treatment today, if you'd like."
"No, I feel like the treatments have already changed something inside me! It's so strange...I am normally such a jealous, suspicious person when it comes to my boyfriend. He doesn't deserve it. He's never cheated, or even done anything shady. It's just me. I see something that looks off, I get wrapped up in it, can't turn my mind off, the next thing you know I'm starting fights, getting all riled up. This week, my boyfriend went out for drinks with his ex, who I hate. He was honest about it, and normally I'd freak out, but I was just so calm about it. I was...just totally ok with it. It was so unlike me! I started to wonder, what's wrong with me? Why do I not care? And even he was like, I can't believe how calm you are about this, I thought it would be a big fight!"
"So I kept thinking about it, about how different I am now, how my reactions are so different to everything. I don't get worked up over things, I just let people say stupid stuff and don't even care...and the only different thing in my life is the acupuncture!"
I explained that people often had shifts in the way they responded to stressful situations after having acupuncture, but even I was surprised at how it seemed to have turned off the jealousy switch in her brain. Jealousy is such a powerful emotion, isn't it? There's a reason why they call it the green-eyed monster.
Then I began to think about how many patients come into my office talking about now being able to let most things roll off their backs. I thought about all the patients I have seen immediately after breakups-how they seemed like completely different people after a session or two. Yes, the pain was still there...but it was manageable. Jealousy, rage, heartbreak and longing...don't you feel overwhelmed by the rush of these emotions while you are going through them? Don't you find that it's difficult to function normally on a daily basis when you are wrapped up in these visceral reactions? This is because your limbic system is triggered, and the limbic system always wins. You can't use logic or reason to talk yourself out of these feelings-they simply are. And they dominate the regular thought patterns in your brain...until you have a few needles inserted, and then everything seems to change.
So again, the question arises: can acupuncture shift your limbic system? I don't know...but I highly suspect that this is the case!