Panic Disorder : Sympathetic & Parasympathetic nervous systemA caucasian woman in her early 50s visited our clinic with the interest of receiving treatment after her daughter was previously treated at an acupuncture clinic. She stated she was suffering from panic disorder and after much thought, she became interested in treating her mental illness through acupuncture and herbal medicine. A problem that occurred during her childhood was what she considered to be the cause of her panic disorder as the recurring thought of her childhood made her uneasy and difficult to calm down. She would sometimes become anxious while sweating and her heart would suddenly begin to pound. With symptoms like these, it is most common to experience sleeping problems, which was the case with this woman as well. These symptoms can be considered to be categorized under Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Sympathetic nervous system and the Parasympathetic nervous system?
To understand these neuropsychiatric disorders, first, it is important to understand the human physiology system called the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The words may sound unfamiliar, but they are not difficult concepts. With a little imagination, it will be easy to understand. Just imagine a fierce and hungry brown bear in front of you. You will have to fight or run away to survive. What changes will happen to our bodies to do so? You will first need to increase the blood supply to your muscles to run away. Your heart rate will, of course, increase given the situation. When a limited amount of blood flows into the muscles, the blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract will decrease. Would you be feeling hungry in this situation where you are risking your life? The answer is no – the digestive tract will naturally be suppressed. Do you think you will be able to fall asleep? The answer once again is no – you will be in serious trouble if you fall asleep. This is the process of the sympathetic nervous system.
If you understand the function of the sympathetic nervous system, it is much easier to identify the parasympathetic nervous system. Imagine you have now escaped the brown bear after a long and vigorous run. Your whole body can now relax after a stressful situation because the human body can only sustain such high tensions for a certain period. Now, you feel hungry again, your heart rate returns to normal and you can take time to sleep. This function of relaxing our excited state is the role of the parasympathetic nervous system.
What does panic disorder have to do with running into a brown bear? Let us take a closer look at the symptoms of panic disorder. Pounding heartbeat, indigestion, difficulty sleeping, etc. are common symptoms of an activated sympathetic nervous system. Panic disorder is a malfunction of the sympathetic nervous system. You can think of panic disorder as a state where the sympathetic nervous system is intensely stimulated.
So how did Eastern medicine doctors understand the effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to treat panic disorder 2,000 years ago? An Eastern medicine book written 2,000 years ago says that when your heartbeat rises, your face turns red, and you cannot sleep, you should use the medicinal ingredient called Rhizoma Coptidis(Huang-Lian). When your heart feels tight and congested, you feel numb, and you feel uneasy, you should take Fructus Gardeniae(Zhi-Zi). When your heart pounds, your muscles shake, and you feel dizzy, it is advised you take Poria(Fu ling). Of course, at the time, there was no explanation for how and why the body was treated using these methods because they did not have a strong enough understanding. It only states that for specific symptoms, specific medication is the answer. Now, with the development of modern science, we can explain why.
For the patient that seeked our clinic’s help to overcome her panic disorder resulting from her childhood trauma, we treated her with Rhizoma Coptidis(Huang-Lian). The patient’s anxiety and sleep improved significantly after a month of treatment. Although she was unable to completely overcome her childhood trauma, she was still satisfied with being able to recover from her physical and psychological troubles.