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Stress and the Nervous System

Oct 28, 2019

Our bodies create and release stress hormones through reactions of the nervous system. In this article, we will take a journey through that process so that we can more fully understand the stress response and its impact on our minds and bodies.

It Begins in the Brain

We’ve all experienced stressful situations and notice the immediate impact on our bodies, whether we’re watching a scary movie, feeling emotionally triggered by an event, or we hear a loud noise. Our hearts start racing and we enter what’s known as “fight or flight” mode, which is our nervous systems’ response to stress. 

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Various parts of our brains and bodies are in constant communication with each other and with our external stimuli. When we’re in a stressful or dangerous situation, our senses send signals to the amygdala, which sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, which communicates with the nervous system, then releases stress hormones into the body. The adrenal glands then pump epinephrine, a stress hormone through the bloodstream, signaling the “fight or flight” response. This causes increased heart rate, blood pressure rises, and our bodies experience all of the intense physiological symptoms of stress. 

The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

These two parts of the nervous system are the cornerstones of the stress response in the body and mind. The sympathetic nervous system tells us to “go” and aids in the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” mechanism in the body, which signals us to rest and slow down when needed. These two parts of the autonomic nervous system are always working together and receiving signals from the brain. Stress wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies and it’s empowering to know the route of these intricate processes.

The Body and Chronic Stress

Living with chronic low-level stress is much like a running on a motor that is idling for too long. After a while, this contributes to health problems associated with chronic stress. Persistent surges of epinephrine can increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack or stroke. Elevated levels of cortisol create physiological changes that inadvertently contribute to weight gain.

How to Counter Chronic Stress

Fortunately, people can learn techniques to counter the stress response. Here are some options for dealing with chronic stress in your everyday life.

  • Understand the signs and symptoms. The warning signs may vary, but learning to recognize your own signals of stress can help you better manage them long-term.
  • Speak with a therapist. They can provide trained, clinical support for facing stress.
  • Identify stress triggers. It is not always possible to avoid the triggers of stress. However, taking note of specific triggers can help a person develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins, which help to boost mood and reduce stress.
  • Try mindfulness. People who practice this form of meditation use techniques to create an awareness of their body and surroundings. This practice can have a positive impact on stress as well as disorders such as anxiety and depression.
  • Improve your sleep quality. Getting too little sleep or poor quality sleep can contribute to ongoing stress. Try to get at least 7 hours every night, and set regular times for going to sleep and waking up.

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