Autonomic Nervous System: How does it work, and why does it affect Anxiety?

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.


Anxiety is a symptom of a Chronically stressed nervous system. Another way of saying this is that anxiety is a symptom of excessive firing of the Sympathetic Nervous System.

Anxiety is a symptom of a Chronically stressed nervous system.  

Another way of saying this is that anxiety is a symptom of the excessive firing of the Sympathetic Nervous System.

What is the Sympathetic Nervous System, and how does it cause Anxiety? 

Let’s take a step back and first describe the Autonomic Nervous System, of which the Sympathetic is 1 Half with the other half being the Parasympathetic Nervous System. 

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the part of our brain that can work with or without our Conscious Input. Thus it runs Automatically. It controls our reactions, our blood pressure, our heart rate, etc. via two branches that oppose each other.  

(Note: Old Paradigm science says that the ANS is not under conscious control. However, many yogis and modern scientists say otherwise. Recent research done on the Ice Man, Wim Hof, is proving this to be true; that we can Consciously Control our Autonomic Nervous System. We will discuss this in future blog posts)

The ANS consists of 2 parts, which act like the Gas Pedal and Brakes on our Nervous System. 

The Sympathetic Nervous System is the gas pedal, and it is activated when we are under any Real or Perceived Stress. This is the famous Fight or Flight Response. In a nutshell, our body diverts all energy to one goal: SURVIVAL RIGHT NOW at the EXPENSE of ALL ELSE.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the part that heals us. It sends blood to our Digestive tract and to our immune system, to help us recover, rest, and repair. When we are in a parasympathetic state, we are calm, rested, relaxed, easily able to sleep, and healing.    

How are you responding to Perceived Stress in a way that is sabotaging to your life?

What Hormones Cause the Stress Response?

The Sympathetic Nervous System is controlled by the Hormones: Cortisol and Adrenaline. Adrenaline is just the name for a group of chemicals that includes Epinephrine & Nor-epinephrine  that are released by your Adrenal Glands.  The adrenals are the small glands that are critical for life that sit on top of your Kidneys. Adrenaline is what makes you feel sweaty, over-stimulated, and nervous, or anxious in a stressful situation.    

The Parasympathetic Nervous System balances the Sympathetic Nervous System and its main hormone is Acetylcholine.  Acetylcholine lowers our reactivity, calms us down, and allows us to heal and repair.  

How are these systems balanced?

When we are acutely stressed, we are designed to release stress hormones for 90 seconds or so, which increases our alertness and responsiveness to the environment so that we can maneuver out of harm’s way. Simply put, we hit the gas and Speed out of the dangerous situation to safety, and then we take our foot off the gas and slowly hit the brakes, calming us down and allowing us to go back to normal life.  

What Happens Underneath the Hood?  

Our body breaks down (metabolizes) the stress hormones called Cortisol, Adrenaline, and NorEpinephrine and cleans them out of us. As the hormones are released, the nerves calm down, and our systems are reset.   

What is Optimal?  

Quite simply, we should only “Hit the Gas” when we are in Real Danger and then hit the brakes as soon as possible to go back to a state of normal alertness.  

Why is this critical?  

What happens when we hit the gas all the time? What happens when we are hitting the gas pedal when we are also hitting the brakes? 

This is Chronic Stress.

What Happens when we are chronically Stressed?  

We Create a Vicious Feedback Loop that Increases the release of more and more stress hormones. What do the stress hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol FEEL LIKE?

  • Nervousness
  • Sweaty
  • Agitated
  • Hyper-vigilant
  • Shaky
  • Heart Racing

Do you have any of the above symptoms when you are anxious?  

The cycle of anxiety results in burnout and exhaustion

Have you ever heard of Burnout or the medical name for it? Sympathetic Dominance? 

Sympathetic Dominance is the state in which we are so out of balance; we are tipped over into a Chronic, Maladaptive Stress Response in which we are chronically releasing stress hormones at an alarmingly high rate, causing all kinds of chaos and havoc within us.  

Symptoms of Sympathetic Dominance, aka BURNOUT

Some of the symptoms of Sympathetic Dominance are:

  • Shoulder and neck muscle stiffness, and pain
  • Anxiety or Depression
  • Increased Reactivity, i.e., Overreacting
  • Anger, Frustration, Irritability
  • Sensitivity to Light & Sound
  • Insomnia
  • Digestive upsets like bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Weight Gain
  • Sugar or salt cravings
  • Alcohol Cravings
  • Headaches

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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Acetylcholine, Adrenal Health, Anger, Anxiety, anxious, burnout, Chronic Stress, Chronically stressed nervous system, Cortisol and Adrenaline, depression, Dr. Morgan Camp, Fight or Flight Response, Frustration, Hormones, immune system, insomnia, Irritability, Maladaptive Stress Response, nervous, Nervous System, Parasympathetic Nervous System, Sympathetic Dominance, Sympathetic Nervous System, Symptoms