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  • Sonya Deol

Stress and Your Nervous System

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

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Stress and anxiety are not new experiences to any of us, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. We live in a fast-paced society where expectations can be high, whether that be in the workforce, within your social circle, or within yourself. The pandemic created a state of crisis for many of us in various ways which seemed to highlight the daily stress that already existed. In the past couple of years, there has been a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide related to the pandemic.

If you’re familiar with feeling that things aren’t in your control, feeling helpless or overwhelmed, having trouble sleeping or eating, or feeling irritable with others you are familiar with stress and/or anxiety.

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What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

Both stress and anxiety are emotional experiences that can seem very identical. Stress is usually caused by an external situation while anxiety is worrying excessively and persistently with or without an external stressor.

Anxiety can also show up as an anxiety disorder which can affect your mood and functioning over months or longer. If this is the case, it’s important to speak to a health professional to determine if you are living with an anxiety disorder (such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder).

A commonality between stress and anxiety is that they create the same response within our minds and bodies.

The biology of stress and anxiety

Stress and your nervous system are connected. Humans have a central nervous system which breaks off into two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System is the technical term for the “fight-flight-freeze” response. When your brain perceives something as a threat, it sets off an alarm to activate this response. Your heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, blood rushes to your hands and feet, muscles become tense, and stress hormones are released. Imagine if you were faced by a tiger in a jungle: your body would prepare to either fight, flee, or freeze (aka “play dead”).

When you are faced with a stressful situation or trigger, your brain sees this as threatening and correctly puts your body into “fight-flight-freeze”. This is an automatic reaction and not one you can choose. You may react in an outburst (“fight”), in avoidance (“flight”), or in shutting down (“freeze”). Although this is a biological response, it is not necessarily helpful if there is no real threat to your survival. And since there is no output for the energy created, many people feel tired or exhausted when stressed/anxious.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System describes the calm state or “rest-digest”. When you are calm, you feel most engaged, alert, and able to make clear decisions. Your heart rate and breathing are normal, and you feel safe and relaxed.

What happens when there is chronic stress?

Research has shown that over time, overactivation of the stress response can lead to health conditions like heart disease, anxiety, depression, substance use, insomnia, weight gain, memory issues, and more. Survivors of trauma, for example, may notice that they are often on edge because their brain is associating current triggers to past trauma (a time when their stress response was activated).

If you would like to learn more about the impact of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, check out this post.

infographic about stress and your nervous system

What can you do about stress?

External stressors may not be in your control, but the ability to interrupt the stress response is. It’s never too late to try and regulate your stress levels.

Breathing from your diaphragm (located between the ribs and stomach) is the simplest and most effective way to do so. Taking 3-5 deep breaths from your diaphragm helps increase oxygen in your blood flow, lowers your heart rate, and returns your breathing to normal. It takes you out of "fight-flight-freeze" and into "rest-digest". It signals to your brain that there is no real threat present and that you are safe. The more you learn to consciously self-soothe, the better for your overall health.

It is normal to feel stressed or anxious over certain situations, however, if you find yourself chronically stressed or anxious you may need more support. Make sure to reach out to a trusted person or health professional so you are not alone in your experience.



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