This is a guest post by Lindsay McCarron BSc, LMT
Stress. We all deal with varying degrees on a daily basis, but how much is it really affecting our overall health? Do little stresses, like paying bills and getting the kids to school on time, weigh as heavily as bigger stresses like getting into a car accident or waking up to burglars in your home? The short answer is that both kinds of stresses take a huge toll on our entire body. Of course, there is a bit more to it than that, so let’s start where stress begins: the nervous system.
I will do my best to simplify the nervous system, and explain how stress impacts every cell in your body.
The nervous system is highly organized, consisting of two main divisions: the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The CNS includes your brain and spinal cord, and the PNS includes all of your nerves and specialized sensory receptors. These receptors monitor changing conditions in both your internal and external environments.
Looking at the PNS, there are two more divisions (I know, bear with me). We have the Somatic Nervous System, which is the voluntary division and controls our skeletal muscles. The other division we have is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is involuntary, meaning you can’t consciously control it. The ANS controls body functions like heart rate, blood pressure, glandular secretions, body temperature and digestion. The ANS has two modes or responses that can be activated, depending on the needs of your body.
When our body has no stresses, your Autonomic Nervous System will be in what’s called the Parasympathetic Response. This is also nicknamed the “Feed and Breed” or “Rest and Digest” state. The systemic effects will help to promote the normal balance of the body, called homeostasis. This includes maintaining a normal heart rate, blood pressure, cellular metabolism, rate of digestion, rate of breathing and even normal dilation of the pupil and tear production!
This all changes when we experience a stressful situation. This could be something truly life threatening, such as being chased by a wild animal, or something we perceive as threatening like taking a test; our brain isn’t very good at differentiating. When our brain gets the message that something stressful is happening (or about to happen) the Sympathetic Response takes over. This is our “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response. It is an “all-or-none” response, so you can think of it like a light switch, either it is turned on and all organs are involved; or it is turned off and you are in that “Rest and Digest” state.
So what actually happens when your body activates that Sympathetic Response? A mass signal is sent out to all of your glands, organs and blood vessels, activating various organs that will help with your survival, and turning off or slowing down processes that aren’t immediately necessary. So, what does this look like for you?
Your pupils constrict so you can focus your vision on what is directly in front of you. This is great if you are running quickly through the wilderness, or even just for taking a test. Your tear ducts also stop producing tears, as it is a waste of energy when trying to survive.
Your whole digestive tract slows and eventually stops. This includes a decrease in saliva production (ever notice that your mouth gets dry when you are anxious or nervous?). You will also have a decrease in digestive juices being secreted in your stomach. So between the general slow down of food passing through your gut, and a lack of secretions to break down that food, it is no wonder digestive problems are a major complaint of people who have problems with anxiety or high levels of stress.
The Sympathetic Response also increases your rate of breathing and dilates the bronchioles within your lungs to help your body take in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide. Your heart rate increases to help move these gasses around your body more efficiently. A consistently high heart rate can lead to an increase in blood pressure. Your blood vessels also undergo changes depending on where they are located. Superficial vessels, supplying smaller muscles and your skin, as well as visceral vessels supplying some less important organs will constrict. At the same time, the vessels in your larger muscles and closer to vital organs will dilate, effectively shunting the blood to where it is needed most. You want that oxygen rich blood supplying the large muscles of your legs to help you escape much quicker. This is also why you look pale and feel the blood rush away from your face when frightened or anxious.
Your liver is triggered to release stored glucose, so your body has more energy. Simultaneously all of the cells in your body will increase their metabolic rates. You will also have a release of the fat stores in your body. Chronic stress can lead to a sudden weight loss between the digestive issues and the change in your metabolism. The increased metabolism can make you feel like you’re always on edge and moving faster than those around you.
Your kidneys stop producing urine, and your urinary sphincters as well as anal sphincters constrict, making it difficult to void your bladder or bowels. Again this can lead to digestive problems, as well as problems with the urinary tract. Your reproductive organs are also affected, leading to decreased arousal and problems with ejaculation. Couples who are trying to conceive are often warned of the problems stress can bring along. So, if you’re trying to get pregnant or you are pregnant it should be getting pretty clear as to why stress can be dangerous.
In addition to all of these changes, your Adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys are triggered to release Adrenaline and Noradrenaline. Both of these hormones reinforce all of the responses already happening in the body.
Everything in your body goes through some sort of change to help increase your chance of survival. Unfortunately, your brain really has no way of deciding whether a stress is something you truly need to flee from or a side effect of daily life. In our society, we have a lot of stresses and added pressures that are constantly kicking us into that “fight or flight” response. So what do we do to help bring our bodies back to the “rest and digest” state?……wait until Part 2 of this series comes out next week.
Lindsay McCarron graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2010 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences specializing in the Biochemistry of Medicinal Plants. Shortly after graduating, in June of 2011, she moved to Boulder, Colorado and began working in the Alternative Healthcare industry.
After dealing with several chronic inflammatory conditions, it became clear to Lindsay that to achieve wellness, she couldn’t just rely on one therapy. The best results came when a combination of alternative therapies were used. This prompted her to further her education and specialties.
Lindsay began studying massage therapy at the Colorado School of Healing Arts in Lakewood, CO in October of 2014. She graduated in April 2016, and began Honeycomb Holistics Ltd. to help members of the community realize the potential of a multi-faceted approach to healthcare. She now practices massage therapy and acts as a medicinal plant consultant with local healthcare providers and their patients. Lindsay has also recently returned to CSHA, as a faculty member, and is enjoying teaching Physiology and Neuroanatomy.