A Stress System that Doesn't Listen to You
But in reality the orders to make our bodies prepare for a fight, a run, a walk or just cope with daily demands must come from somewhere. There has to be something in charge of running this ultra-complex mechanism.
The autonomic nervous system and a variety of hormones control how all internal body organs function, both at rest and during stress. The two components of the autonomic nervous system are sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves and their respective ganglia (areas where nerves connect to each other in
Now imagine, through your senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) your brain has detected a threat. A tiger is about to attack! It wants to get your body ready for it. Remember, perceived threats or demands do the same exact thing.
Through its central switchboard (thalamus) your brain informs hypothalamus, the stress commanding general, of the threat. Hypothalamus orders the first line of responders, the sympathetic nerves. These nerves inject their small load of adrenaline and noradrenaline into the recipient sites of your body organs and cause an almost instantaneous change in their function. You become aware of some of those changes after they occur but you have no control over them, unless of course you learn a few skills that are generally not part of your nature!
Your heart will race and beat so strong you think it is going to fall out of your chest. Your blood pressure goes up. Yes, those muscles need more blood and oxygen. You breathe faster. Your palms sweat. Your
We are all modern cavemen!
In the depths of our brain, we own a primitive center called the limbic system. We share it with many animals. It has not changed or evolved since the cave ages. It has saved us, and many other animal species, from extinction.
All components of the limbic system work without our input. They are autonomous. They prepare us to fight or flee when we are faced with danger. They provide us with means to cope with daily demands. They do that by controlling every internal body organ.
What a blessing! Can you even imagine if you, and your conscious brain, were to handle the chores of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure regulation, functions of your bowels, bladder, liver and stomach? To decide every second how all the organs should alter their function in response to changing demands? No way! You wouldn't want to live that way. Fortunately, it is all automated for you, courtesy of our incredible and miraculous body physiology.
synapses). These nerves originate in the brain and their end-fibers go to every internal body organ.
Sympathetic nerves are the ones involved in stress response. In their nerve endings, they store small amounts of adrenaline and noradrenaline they can inject instantaneously into the organs for an immediate response. Ever wondered why your heart rate goes up instantly with the slightest provocation!?
So who is in charge? Who orders all these changes? The hypothalamus, a tiny gland size of an almond, that resides in the limbic system, the subconscious and the most primitive part of our brain. We are not aware of its existence or its function. It is so tiny, the size of an almond, and yet it does so much!
mouth gets dry. You might feel an urge to urinate (bladder contracts) or eliminate waste (bowel activity increases).
Other changes will occur but you won't be quite aware of them. Your stomach produces more acid. Your bronchi will dilate. Your kidneys produce less urine. You will need your body fluids if you get injured. All of these changes happen in a mere two or three seconds!
Almost as fast as these changes happen, your muscles tense up through a different nervous pathway called somato-sensory system. As soon as you see, hear, smell or even think of a threat or demand, your brain sends signals directly to your muscles to tense up and get ready for action. Again, an imaginary or perceived threat would do the same. Ever wondered why back and shoulder aches are the first signs of chronic stress?
Now you are ready or as some say, "fired up"! Ready to fight, flee or meet other demands because the limbic system does not discriminate. To it, a threat is a threat and demand is a demand! Same things happen if you run the race, play soccer, engage in an intimate encounter, go for a brisk walk, give a talk, face your demanding boss, argue with your better half, tackle financial problems, worry about children, endure traffic jams...
But wait! Those sympathetic nerve endings contain only a tiny amount of adrenalin. The effects won't last. In a few seconds you'll be out of adrenaline! Oh no!
Not to worry! There is a large reservoir of adrenaline in your adrenal glands. That's why it is called adrenaline!
By the order of "general hypothalamus", the adrenal medulla (inner part) releases a generous amount into your blood stream. It gets to the organs in no time, within 20 seconds! Now you are "really fired up" for the duration with no shortage of adrenaline.
Other hormones will soon follow. Cortisol and aldosterone from the adrenal cortex (outer part) pour in to raise your blood sugar and retain more salt.
How long will it last? The fight is over in a few minutes. The race, soccer, or walk, a little longer. The talk, may be in thirty minutes. Intimate encounter? Well it depends! Not a very long time anyway. Now finished with any of those activities you are ready to relax. The other component of the autonomous nervous system, parasympathetic, takes over by producing a hormone called Acetylcholine.
Now everything reverses. Heart slows down. Blood pressure returns to normal. Breathing slows. Your muscles, bladder and bowel all relax. You feel good and satisfied.
Or do you? Did I forget something? Oh yes! What about constant worrying about children? Agonizing over finances? Your job problems? Your marital difficulties? Your body got "fired up" long ago. How long will that last? A week? A month? The whole year? Forever? Did you even need those muscles tensed up, your heart rate and blood pressure shot up, your urine output down, your blood sugar elevated and your immune system zapped? When are you going to run out of fuel? What about the long term effects of those elevated hormones and all the ensuing illnesses?
In those types of scenarios, you didn't need any of the changes to start with, let alone for such long periods of time. But your body did it any way! You see, stress responses are equal opportunity responses. They are non-specific. They happen regardless of the type of threat or demand, real or perceived.
The stress physiology was evolved for cave ages to save our lives and to enable us to meet demands. They have not evolved beyond that. We are not hard-wired for modern times. That is why we have the "diseases of civilization".
The stress system does very well at what it was designed to do. Get you out of trouble, make you survive and meet the short-term demands. It doesn't really listen to you unless you learn to talk its language!
Using stress energy in our times to achieve wellness and vitality rather than illness, requires learned skills. We are not born with ability to read, write, play musical instruments or do sports either. We have to learn those things. It's the same with stress energy management skills in modern times. I guess that's why you are here reading this, and I'm glad that you are!