In 1973, an Indian man by the name of Sadhu Amar Bharati decided to keep his right hand raised in the air as a sign of religious devotion. Nearly forty years later his arm is still raised. At first, Bharati had to endure nearly unbearable pain as his body protested against doing something it had not been designed to do. Now he feels no discomfort at all and couldn’t lower his right arm even if he wanted to—the muscles are permanently fused in that position.
Bharati’s story tells us a lot about how the human body works. The first thing to realize is that the human body is amazingly adaptable. Most of us couldn’t keep our arms raised for 38 minutes—it’s not something the limb is designed to do. Our bodies signal us with pain, fatigue and other negative stimuli when we push them too far or in ways they weren’t meant to handle. But if we ignore the warning signs, the body can eventually learn to accommodate our demands. The negative stimuli decreases or we stop paying as much attention to it and go on about our daily lives. Damage is still being done to the body, however, and eventually the bill comes due.
One of the most common places I see this process in action is with stress. Here in the Walla Walla valley we’re a bit more laid back than other places around the country but we still have plenty of people struggling with difficult work environments, family issues, and other sources of stress.
The body has two types of nerves—sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system governs the fight or flight response, while the parasympathetic system governs rest and digest functions. When we’re stressed, we have more sympathetic nervous activity and less parasympathetic activity. Essentially, the body spends more resources gearing up to fight or flee from danger and less resources on maintenance and repairs. The sympathetic response is well-designed to help us escape acute, short-term dangers like those we would encounter in nature such as natural disasters and predators. In the modern world, however, we encounter many chronic sources of stress that we can neither fight nor run away from. A difficult work environment, for example, will always be ready to trigger more stress five days a week.
The other thing that happens with stress is that levels of Cortisol rise. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that has many functions that are good for short-term survival but very bad in the long run. Among other things, Cortisol increases blood pressure, reduces fertility, decreases memory recall, reduces bone formation and can even weaken the activity of the immune system.
After all the warning signs had passed, Bharati’s body decided that well, if his arm needed to always be in that position it would make it happen. The muscles fused and now his right arm is permanently extended. Similarly, if we spend too much time stressed, the body eventually decides that it must need to be constantly on edge. In these cases of chronic stress the patient often rates themselves as not stressed or under very little stress—the body has stopped sending them warning signals, but damage is still being done. It is often not until they’ve had a few treatments that they can look back and see, in retrospect, how stressed they truly were.
Because it signals the body directly, acupuncture is remarkably effective in breaking the body out of the chronic-stress cycle. Most people experience a sense of deep, almost dream-like relaxation during treatment. Afterward they find that they are able to handle situations which would normally have flustered them calmly. When they do get stressed the feelings pass quickly rather than lingering. It’s certainly not magic, though it can feel a bit magical, it’s just letting the body lower its arm.