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What Is the Connection between Stress and the Nervous System?

By R. Bargar
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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When the body experiences stress, it triggers a complex series of interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. The nervous system senses and interprets events, and if stress is perceived, the endocrine system is alerted while the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Chemical signaling by hormones is initiated by a tiny structure in the brain, the hypothalamus. Using the nervous system’s electrical signaling, the hypothalamus triggers the release of hormones by the endocrine glands. Heart rate, breathing, digestion and a host of other metabolic processes are influenced by the intricate interactions between hormones, stress and the nervous system.

The central nervous system, made up of the brain and spinal cord, rapidly sends and receives electrical signals via neurons that act like messaging pathways. Signals from the peripheral nervous system are transported to the brain for interpretation. The brain responds by sending electrical messages that trigger muscles to act. In addition to controlling movement, the brain senses emotional, physical or mental stress and signals the endocrine system to release the appropriate hormones in response to the perceived emergency. The nervous system's responses to stress normally function to protect humans from harm, but chronic stress overwhelms the system.

To deal with stress, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response — which triggers a surge in adrenaline, increased heart and breathing rates, elevated blood pressure and slowed digestion. This primes the body to act quickly during emergencies. The close ties between stress and the nervous system can cause problems when stress is chronic and the emergency response gets stuck in the "on" position. Anxiety, sleep problems and damage to the heart might occur if stress is excessive. Chronic stress prevents the parasympathetic nervous system from returning the body to a balanced, relaxed state.

Stress causes the endocrine system to release hormones that have quick and wide-ranging effects throughout the body. The functioning of the immune system is depressed and the healing and repair of tissues slows, while activation of the sympathetic nervous system increases the stress the body feels. Emotional issues may develop, including anxiety and depression. Digestive functioning is impaired and stress-related diseases might emerge, such as chronic indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome. Medical professionals advise that people learn how to manage stress to help control potential problems with chronic stress and the nervous system's response.

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Discussion Comments
By anon949661 — On May 06, 2014

You really need to go to a chiropractor and get your spine checked. The reason is if you have damage to your spine, your spine can send the wrong signals to your brain, giving you constant anxiety and panic, worry and paranoia.

I was the same way with agoraphobia. I've been living like this since I was 19. I'm 37 now and I'm now just now finding out that my spine is messed up. It does not mean you are mentally ill or emotionally ill, but something physical is causing it. It is best to go see a specialist for your spine.

By anon275092 — On Jun 15, 2012

P.S- I am same anonymous user from the large write up. If any medically trained professionals read this and provide a means of contacting privately, I would be more than happy to give a larger insight into this as this has been my life story and is the only thing I know now. Hope that you could help in return.

By anon275091 — On Jun 15, 2012

For many years I have had stress -- in fact, since I was a child. This has brought on clinical anxiety and panic attacks, and I also suffer from IBS daily now. My whole body is kind of shutting down and my nerves are damaged. I either cannot sleep or sleep at anytime, any place. I have no life and this has overtaken me, which has pushed me into a state of agoraphobia for the last five years.

I have bad palpitations, twitches in my eyelids, swollen nerve endings and my whole body basically is in pain 24/7 and now I’m at a stage where this has damaged my body full time. I am in pain throughout my body, including the muscles and bones.

Funny thing is I do my best to stay healthy. I do not smoke or drink and I have a healthy diet due to my IBS.

I am having cognitive behavioral therapy and have never succeeded in managing my stress levels. This has caused a wide variety of mental health problems over the years.

To anyone struggling with stress, I would say to get help sooner rather than later and to try and change their thought process. I do not mean to go on but wanted to help people understand how much it can ruin a life. Also, it has made me very isolated over the years and I see no family or friends. Whenever someone gets close I push away trying to avoid any situation possible and no longer know how to care for others.

I wish everyone all the best with coping with this and to seek help. Stress will override how your body behaves mentally and physically. For me, it has made me very poorly recently and I have had several cases of internal bleeding through ulcers.

I hope I have mentioned enough for you to get a bigger picture of what can really happen. I believe most people suffer anxiety in a mild form but when all your life consists of is worry, stress, anxiety, panic, depression, OCD and many other things, then basically it will destroy you as a person.

I wish you all the very best in coping and hope you can have a bright future. I know this message is jumbled but that is part and parcel with me as I get so confused with not being able to concentrate on but one thought at a time.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 09, 2012

My brother's nervous system was never the same after he came home from serving in the military overseas. Being stressed so much for years affected him deeply, both physically and mentally.

His wife cannot sleep in the same bed with him anymore, because he wakes up thinking he is under attack. He has picked her up off the mattress and slammed her down on the floor in the past, before he had a chance to wake up fully and realize that she wasn't the enemy.

Loud noises make him hit the ground for safety. He is paranoid about people's intentions, and you can't make sudden movements around him.

By OeKc05 — On Feb 08, 2012

The effects of stress are varied. While my heart rate and nerves seem to suffer, my sister's stomach and sleep patterns are disturbed.

My hands shake a lot when I'm stressed. Also, my blood pressure rises. Fortunately, I only go through short episodes of this, and then I get better.

My sister lets her job stress her out constantly, though. She has lost weight, because she stays nauseated and has no appetite.

Even though she is very tired, she cannot sleep through the night. She wakes up after a few hours of sleep and lies there with her troubled thoughts for a long time.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 08, 2012

@StarJo – Stress and anxiety ruled my world for several years. The most extreme manifestation of it took the form of panic attacks.

When I would experience one of these, I felt as though I were dying. I would depart from reality, and though my physical surroundings were the same, I felt removed from them.

I had trouble catching my breath, and my fingers became numb. I would hang my head down, close my eyes, and pretend I really was somewhere else, and that seemed to ease the stress.

Nowadays, I am much better. I think that my faith helped me overcome the stress. Once I came to believe that life has a purpose and Jesus loves me, then I wasn't afraid of fear anymore.

I learned to get angry at the panic attack. As soon as I would feel that old fear creeping up on me, I would fight back with rage, and it would not take hold of me.

By StarJo — On Feb 07, 2012

I know exactly how it feels to have chronic stress. This article described it perfectly. I did feel as though my body was constantly ready to react to a threat, even though physically, I was safe.

Emotional stress brought on by a dysfunctional relationship really messed up my nervous system. Before this happened, I had always been a calm, easy-going person. During my time of stress, I could not imagine ever being able to feel that way again.

Has anyone else here ever felt the strain of chronic stress? Were you able to overcome it, or are you still struggling?

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