Stress: It’s Not in Your Head, It’s In Your Nervous System

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

When we feel stressed, we might use phrases like "I feel like I am going crazy". But stress isn't something that's in your head... it's your nervous system that needs some special attention when you're stressed out.

Stress and the Nervous System

Have you ever had a friend, family member, or even a doctor tell you that to reduce the stress in your life, you need to stop worrying? As if by just changing your mind about the stress you feel, it will just go away.  

But the thing about stress is that it doesn’t happen in your head, it comes from the nervous system. This system stretches throughout your body and sets off a series of events in response to a stressor. When stress is prolonged, the nervous system’s response can become taxing on both your physical and mental health. (1, 2)

But understanding your nervous system and how it functions can help you work with it. This way, you can start to recognize your body’s stress responses and reduce their impact on your life.

The Nervous System

The nervous system is broken down into a few different divisions: the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Central Nervous System

The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. This is where things get started. When you encounter a stressor, like an oncoming car, the part of your brain called the amygdala interprets it as danger and sends that information to the hypothalamus. (3)

The hypothalamus acts as a command center for the body’s response in this dangerous situation. It sends signals to the autonomic nervous system, setting off a chain of events to help you survive. (3)

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Each one has a very different job. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers the “fight or flight” response to help you respond to a threat. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) produces the “rest and digest” response that calms you down after the danger is over. (1, 3)

Sympathetic Nervous System

When the hypothalamus activates the SNS, it jumps into action quickly, signaling the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine). These hormones, as well as actions taken by the autonomic nerves, cause the body to react in the following ways: (1, 3)

  • heart rate increases
  • breathing speeds up
  • airways in the lungs widen
  • increased oxygen flows to the brain to increase alertness
  • senses, such as sight and hearing, sharpen
  • digestion slows down
  • blood sugar and fats are released into the bloodstream to provide energy

All of these responses allow you to quickly and efficiently react to a threat, increasing your chances of survival. (3)

Parasympathetic Nervous System

Once the threat has passed, the PNS brings the body back to its pre-stress state. It lowers heart rate, decreases respiration, and speeds digestion back up. These actions allow the body to rest and heal after dealing with a crisis. (1, 3)

Effects of Chronic Stress

Stress, though much-reviled, is actually a completely normal part of life. Everyone experiences stress in their day-to-day lives, whether it comes from normal responsibilities or from bigger life changes, like the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or world conflict. (2)

Stress has an important job to play when it happens in short bursts. When you’re in a life-threatening situation, like an animal attack or impending car accident, the stress you feel signals your nervous system that you’re in danger, and its response is designed to keep you alive. (1, 3)

The problem is that the body reacts to everyday stress in much the same way that it does to a real threat. And for people who experience chronic stress, it can have serious effects on their physical and mental health. (1, 3)

Chronic stress causes the SNS to stay constantly switched on, which means that cortisol and epinephrine continue to be released into the body. Over time, this drains the body and has an impact on all systems, including: (1, 2, 3)

  • Cardiovascular system: Chronic stress causes the heart to work too hard for too long, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Immune system: When stress hormones are released into the body for too long, they weaken the immune system. This makes the body more susceptible to illness and increases the time it takes to recover from an injury or illness.
  • Digestive system: Chronic stress can cause digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, stomachache, nausea, and vomiting. It can also cause heartburn and acid reflux, as well as increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

How to Calm Your Nervous System During Stress

Fortunately, once you understand your nervous system and how it works, you can use this knowledge to combat chronic stress. You can begin to notice signs of chronic stress and use them as a signal to try to reduce it. Symptoms of chronic stress include: (1, 2, 3)

  • irritability
  • insomnia and other sleep issues
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • difficulty concentrating
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • over- or undereating 
  • reduced sex drive

One effective way of combating chronic stress is to engage in activities that engage the PNS and elicit the rest and digest response. Meditation, deep abdominal breathing, calm visualization, and the use of a mantra can all cause the relaxation response. (3)

Physical exercise is also an effective way to dispel stress. Activities like walking, running, cycling, swimming, and yoga all deepen breathing and help to relieve muscle tension. (3)

Additionally, having a strong support system can make stress feel far more manageable. If you find that you’re keeping your worry and tension to yourself, try sharing it with a friend or family member. The encouragement they provide could have a big impact on how you feel. (1, 3)

Plant-based supplements may also offer support in doing away with chronic stress. Be Serene is a topical cream that provides relief from anxiousness and nervousness. Its advanced topical delivery system provides faster-acting relief that helps you ease into calmness any time, day or night.

Be Serene IR Topical includes five ingredients that are known for busting through anxiety: mulungu, California poppy, albizia supreme, gaba, and L-theanine. Applying just one or two pumps of Be Serene to your wrists will help you relax through worry and negative thoughts and sleep better.

When the nervous system stays switched on because of chronic stress, its effects can feel overwhelming and even insurmountable. But when you know how your nervous system works and how to work with it, you can move past chronic stress and into a healthier way of living.

Sources:

  1. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body 
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response 
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/parasympathetic-nervous-system

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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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