How Does Stress Affect the Nervous System?

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By Tess Thompson

The nervous system is a network of nerves (neurons) that are interconnected with each other through a complex network. It is comprised of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is a large network of nerves.

The nervous system responds to external as well as internal stimuli. To give specific instructions to various parts of the body on how to react to a specific stimulus, the neurons use electrochemical signals.

Stress stimulates the CNS and prepares it to meet stressful situations. During the preparation, the body goes through various physiological changes that are initiated to enable fight or flight. This is the function of the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Both of these perform entirely opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for stress responses, while the parasympathetic nervous system readies the body for rest and relaxation.

When some event causes fear, dread or terror, the sympathetic nervous system senses the danger and increases the heart rate to send an extra supply of blood to different parts of the body. It also signals the adrenal glands near the kidneys to secrete adrenaline, the hormone that provides a boost to muscular energy.

The nervous system is very different from other systems in the body. It not only supervises stress but also controls the body’s reactions afterwards. It reduces the level of hormones in the blood stream and signals the heart to revert back to its normal beat rate.

Emotional stress produces similar physical changes by stimulating the nervous system to respond. Even though we know that adequate and relevant responses to stress are necessary, the state of the body during these conditions is not normal. The body comes into a stressed state almost instantly when it detects any kind of threat, but the body must necessarily revert back to its normal state after a certain period of time. Reverting back to the normal state is not possible when there is constant stress, which affects your overall health over time.

Constant stress means that the sympathetic nervous system keeps you in a state of alert all the time and does not let the parasympathetic nervous system to come into play. This translates into a situation where the body cannot actually rest at all. If the body is not at rest, the body systems that are suspended during the stress response cannot be resumed effectively.

Admittedly, it is impossible to avoid stress totally. Managing stress through relaxation, deep breathing, yoga and meditation sends signals to the central nervous system and helps the body to go back to its original relaxed state. What you can also do is to manage emotional stress by reevaluating your perception of life situations. Positive thinking is also an effective way of coping with stress and may greatly help you to adapt and manage stressors.


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