Stress was originally designed to help you stay alive. It creates a “fight or flight” response which helps you only focus on vital functions to survive stressful situations. However these days instead of running away from an animal or overcoming a survival situation we often have stress triggered in our daily lives such as driving in traffic or doing something with which you are not comfortable. This can have all kinds of harmful effects if not kept in check.
The Science: Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Division of the Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous system controls the involuntary, or automatic, functions of your body is broken into the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. This includes the actions of the glands, blood vessels, and the heart. Sympathetic Nervous System controls the “fight or flight” response as it prepares your body to run away like if you were being chased by a cheetah, or if you are fighting for your life. This is basically your survival instinct. the Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the “feed and breed” response. This controls when your body is meant to recover, digest food, sleep, and reproduce.
Both the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System create response for your entire body. The hypothalamus in your brain tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline to engage the “fight or flight” mode. These hormones increase our blood flow to: muscles, the heart, and the affected organs to help us survive any stressor. Normally, when the stressor is over, the hypothalamus tells the nervous system to go back to normal. However, when you experience chronic stress, the response continues and you are unable to enter the parasympathetic nervous system that is meant for recovery.
When we are stressed, our muscles tighten to protect us from injuries. After the stressor is over the muscles are able to relax and release. However, during chronic stress the muscles stay in a constant guarded state. During long periods of muscle tension without relaxing, the hypertonisity (muscle tension) of the tissue can cause other reactions throughout the body and promote stress-related disorders. A common example is when people say they carry their stress in the shoulders and neck. If left unchecked this can lead to tension headaches and migraines.
The Reproductive System
For men, the reproductive system is influenced by the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the production of testosterone, causing arousal. Men suffering from chronic stress can experience a drop in testosterone, thereby affecting their sex drive and libido. Other effects include erectile dysfunction, impotence, and even lower sperm count.
Stress has a different effect on women in regards to their menstrual cycle. It can cause heavier, irregular, or painful periods. Pregnancy is also impacted with chronic stress making it harder to conceive, health during a pregnancy, and the postpartum healing process. Stress can exacerbate the side effects of menopause for women, making symptoms like hot flashes even worse.
Cortisol is released during stressful experiences, raising blood glucose as a ready source of energy to overcome a stressor. However, when you experience chronic stress, your system may not keep up with the prolonged exposure to this extra blood glucose and can raise your risk for type 2 diabetes.
Stress may also cause you to experience an increase in pain, bloating, and nausea in your abdomen. Severe stress can make you feel nauseous, leading to vomiting, increased or decreased appetite, and diarrhea or constipation. Some individuals may also experience a decrease or increase in appetite, often referred to as “stress eating.”
Stress can help you recover from infections and heal wounds when the sympathetic system is stimulated. However, chronic stress can weaken your immune system. This makes it easier for your body to get sick, ward off infections, and increase the recovery time from illnesses and injuries.
Cardiovascular and Respiratory System
The respiratory system is responsible for taking in oxygen from the environment and expelling carbon dioxide from your body. You transport these nutrients to and from your tissue by using the heart to pump blood through our blood vessels to the tissue that needs these nutrients and waste removal.
During stress, the sympathetic nervous system response distributes blood to working tissue, increase the heartbeat and open up our airways to allow for increased performance. For people who suffer from breathing issues like asthma or emphysema, this stress response can make it more difficult to breathe. Chronic stress can keep an elevated heart rate resulting, increasing the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and heart attack.
Beating stress and living a happy life
Stress has become a common silent killer. It can wreak havoc on your whole body physically, mentally, and emotionally. Try to set aside 30 minutes everyday to make sure you enter your parasympathetic state to help you relax and recover. This will make sure you have not only a longer but also a more positive and fruitful life. You only get one chance at this game of life so make it count!