How does stress affect the nervous system? In short, a complicated system of hormones sets off a reaction that affects different systems in your body.
When stressful events are too much for you to handle, your body automatically releases a large amount of these stress hormones, including adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol. It happens so fast that you have no idea that it’s happening.
These stress hormones cause you to have a Fight or Flight response, and your blood pressure goes up, your breathing becomes shallow and fast, your muscles tense, your heart pounds and you start to sweat. The Fight or Flight response is designed for survival, to protect you and keep you alive.
If you really have a physical threat, all these changes will help you fight the threat. However, if your stressor is something like a possible foreclosure on your house, a sick spouse or just a broken traffic light when you are late for work, your body can turn on you.
Your body’s nervous system over-reacts and, with chronic stress, you can develop serious illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, clogged arteries and brain changes that cause depression, anxiety and even addictions.
How Stress Affects the Nervous System
When you have a stressful situation, your body acts to protect you. Let’s say that an older lady stepped into the street, in front of your car. You jam on the brakes to avoid hitting the lady. Your heart is racing, you feel warm and sweaty and you find that your hands are shaking.
Let’s look at what just happened. When the lady stepped into the street, your eyes sent a message to your amygdala, which is an area in your brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala processed the information and decided that there was an emergency. It sent a message to your hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is your brain’s command center, and it sends messages to other areas of your body, communicating through your autonomic nervous system. In the story above, your autonomic nervous system caused a Flight or Flight response and told your adrenal glands to pump out some adrenaline (epinephrine). And your body also raises cortisol levels.
This is the simple version, but in short, your body was now ready to fight the threat–so you jammed your foot on the brake, and avoided hitting the lady in front of your car.
However, when the threat is over, your parasympathetic nervous system reverses the process, and your body returns to normal.
If your stress continues for a long time, as it might during a difficult and long drawn out divorce, your body can become its own worst enemy. Too much epinephrine or adrenaline can damage your arteries and veins, increase your blood pressure, and make you more prone to having a heart attack or a stroke.
When your cortisol levels are too high, you can build up fat tissue and gain weight. Cortisol increases your appetite, so you are more likely to eat more.
Side Effects of Stress
The Sympathetic Nervous System can also shut down certain systems such as your digestive system and your bowel movements and digestion, because you would not need them in an emergency situation.
Here are some other physical effects of stress that you might have:
- Muscle tension – tension in your shoulder, neck or back
- Pain – back aches, pain in arms or legs
- Headaches – tightening in your neck, scalp and head, leading to tension headaches.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestive disturbances – nausea, vomiting or even ulcers
- Constipation or diarrhea
When under stress, you may not exercise as much as you used to, and you may eat more and snack more.
When stress is prolonged, some people resort to dysfunctional ways of relieving the stress, like drinking alcohol or using street drugs.
So how can you stop the pain? Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Benson-Henry Mind Body Medicine clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, developed a program to help people relax and counter the constant Fight or Flight response of chronic stress. His program uses these methods to control the stress response:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Visualization of a tranquil scene or hypnosis
- Repetitive prayer
- Tai chi
To determine if Dr. Benson’s program was working, Massachusetts General did a study, using 122 patients with hypertension, or high blood pressure. The study concluded that, after relaxation training for 8 weeks, more than half of the patients were able to eliminate at least one of their blood pressure medicines.
In addition to learning how to relax, you can lower your stress levels by exercising and you will need to have some good friends or relatives that will support your efforts.