Stress and the Nervous System

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We all have heard about “stress” and the negative impact it can have on our body and brain. Nearly all of us deal with stress on a daily basis and while some acute stress can be advantageous, the chronic effects of stress can lead to physical problems such as headache, backache, stomach and gastrointestinal distress, ulcers, high blood pressure, poor eating habits, and chest pain. Stress can also cause psychological problems such as irritability, impatience, anger, sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression and anxiety. Clearly, stress is both a universal phenomena and unfortunately relates to or causes many of the major daily aches, pains, and emotional distress in our lives.

I believe it is important to always be conscious of our bodies and our brains (minds) so we can identify when we lose balance or symmetry in our natural state. I also believe it is important to understand the physiological mechanisms that underlie stress so we can make changes and achieve equilibrium. In order to achieve the latter, we need to understand our “autonomic nervous system” that has two major parts to be discussed in this blog: the “sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.”

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is located in the brain and has effects on the entire body. One major part of the ANS is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that helps our bodies and brains get into a “fight or flight” state and have actually helped our species survive until today. Recall that dinosaurs and other potentially catastrophic events or threats that required us to fight or flee confronted our ancestors. Without the SNS we would have expired as a species.

The SNS serves as a type of alert and action system in which specific structures in our brain and body engage to enable us to fight or flee. Once the SNS kicks in our brain releases norepinephrine and our body releases epinephrine (adrenaline) to get our system hyper-engaged. The brain is also alerted by the hypothalamus (master gland), which triggers the pituitary gland that in turn triggers the adrenal gland (periphery of the body). These glands release hormones including cortisol and glucocorticoids that put our amygdala on overdrive and our hippocampus (learning center) on hold. These physiological reactions result in our heavy breathing, a restriction in body fluids leading to dry mouth, halt in the digestive system, and in the reproductive system. Our brains become hyper focused and vigilant as we try to deal with the threat in front of us.

Our bodies can tolerate this jolt to our equilibrium for some period of time, particularly as it helps us to survive. However, our bodies are not designed to handle such acute stress for extended periods of time. It is important to note that dinosaurs no longer confront us and life-threatening stressors on a daily basis typically do not confront us. Despite this, we continue to respond to small, non life-threatening stressors with the same SNS response.

Fortunately we have a counterbalance to the SNS known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. Our bodies do quite well with our natural balance of PNS and SNS and in fact our resting state is the PNS. Our reactions to daily non-life-threatening stressors results in the SNS overpowering the PNS and increasing our risk for the physical and psychological problems noted earlier. How can you engage the PNS to keep it at least in balance if not the lead in your daily management of life stressors?

Consider the following tips to finding and engaging your PNS:

1.    Stop and identify (make a list) of your daily life stressors.
2.    Identify where your body feels stress (physical and psychological).
3.    Practice rhythmical breathing by taking a slow and deep breath in for four seconds and exhaling slowly for the same four seconds.
4.    Practice the breathing for five minutes, three to four times daily.
5.    Give yourself at least thirty minutes daily of sitting upright in a quiet place where you can simply turn inward and let all stimuli flow over and through you. Be patient and focus on simply being.
6.    Self-talk using positive words such as “love, joy, patience, forgiveness, kindness, happiness, trust, and peace.”
7.    Work daily to not react negatively to small things your brain may have considered “big” in the past.
8.    Do something nice each day for someone.
9.    Slow your pace down and work consciously on inner balance.
10.    Understand this is a lifetime effort and you will experience positive steps and some setbacks. Simply remain conscious of your inner balance and remind yourself “I am trying to reach and use my PNS”

Good Luck!


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3 thoughts on “Stress and the Nervous System

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