We definitely live in stressful times, and this long, drawn out Covid pandemic has added extra levels of concern and pressure. We all know that stress is not good for us – but how does it impact on our health and cause symptoms? Understanding some basics here can help us to treat the right areas, and plan the right way out of some tricky, ‘stress related’ ailments.
Our nervous system is the wiring of the body, but it also includes our brain and the part of us that thinks. Basically, it is the way that our body interacts with, and experiences the outside world.
When I explain the nervous system to stressed people I often talk of the conscious and unconscious nervous systems. An example would be that the conscious part allows us to hold our breath, but the unconscious part causes us to carry on breathing when we stop thinking about it. Many functions within the body are controlled automatically, which allows our heart, breathing, digestion and even hormonal systems to function, even while we are sleep. Not all automatic systems are easy to control consciously, eg. We cant normally stop our heart beating. But others are much more obvious – such as getting angry typically pushes our blood pressure up.
Stress that we experience with our brain comes from feeling threatened, pressurized, overwhelmed etc, and it can result in emotions such as anxiety, irritability and despondency. When we find ourselves feeling this way it is easy to identify that we are stressed, and hopefully figure out why. However, some stresses are more subtle and difficult to identify, such as tension and home from a unhappy relationship, or being overwhelmed with too much on your plate, or dealing with a difficult work environment. This, low grade, long term frustration may be difficult to identify as a cause, when compared to the extreme stress such as the loss of a loved-one, or loss of a job. Sometimes we even get used to the stress, and it becomes ‘normal’ – in this case the stress can even be subconscious, and we may even think we are not stressed. But the body is not so easily fooled!
You see, our nervous systems were designed to deal with stress, and stress activates some very primal parts of our body – parts of our old survival mechanisms. Essentially there are two parts to our automatic nervous system (actually called the Autonomic Nervous System) one side that is to do with rest, relaxation and basic bodily functions, and the other part that is to do with fight or flight. These parts are in opposition and unfortunately, fight or flight tends to over-ride the relax side of the nervous system. Most organs of the body have nerve ending for both of these systems and one primes it for action and the other causes normal relaxed function. When we feel threatened then the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and it tends to rev the body up – our muscles are tense, our hearth beats faster, blood pressure increases, blood sugar increases. But at the same time energy is diverted away from areas that the body might not need to run away from a fight, such as digestion and hormonal balance.
Short term, this works well, we can cope better and have more energy to deal with a problem, and when it is past – then things can go back to normal. If the stress or tension lasts longer we start to see problems developing. From tense muscles and headaches, to high blood pressure, sleeping problems, irritable bowel, stomach ulcers and fatigue. The effect of a hyped up nervous system on the body is well documented. A big part of my job is helping people to restore more balance to their nervous system.
However, it goes even deeper than this when examine the effects of long term exposure to stress hormones down he line. I feel that stress can affect some peoples insulin and slow their metabolism. I feel that stress can also affect the immune system and result in more infections, or even a hyped-up immune system (such as auto-immune issues or allergies). Stress may also contribute to chronic nervous system imbalances (autonomic dysfunction) and result in certain things like burnout, chronic fatigue, dysautonomias, fibromyalgia, and even some hypersensitivity syndromes.
I find the topic fascinating, and as a wholistic practitioner I like to look at the multiple aspects of this common condition. I feel that treatment needs to encompass mindfulness of the cause, and possible lifestyle changes. It also needs to take the individual into consideration, as we may need to calm certain parts of the nervous system (and body) and support or strengthen others.
As stress is linked into so many of the health issues that we (as humans) suffer from, know that we need to be mindful of this when treating them. Basically, if you have health issues that keep recurring, even though an effective treatment has been found – you should consider whether the Autonomic Nervous System could be involved and if chronic stress could be involved.