Stress and coping – The stress response

Imagine your alarm didn’t go off, you roll over, check the time and you’ve 20 minutes to get yourself up, washed and dressed, the kids ready and out the door to daycare before you start work at 9 am. The company are making cutbacks and you know your job is on the line. You make a judgement whether to call into work sick, get up and ready or lay in bed a little longer. You decide to make a run for it. Twenty minutes is enough time to get out of the house, right?

Twenty-five minutes later you’re ready to leave to house and now you can’t find your car keys. You’re beginning to sweat and your heart is racing as you scramble around your bag looking for your keys searching your coat pocket. You find your keys, get everyone in the car and make a dash to drop the kids off at daycare. 

Once you’re on the road you start to notice you’re breathing rapidly, your heart is still racing and you notice your clammy hands. The kids are dropped off and you begin to calm down. At that moment you realise that your autonomic nervous system and your fight or flight response has just saved you your job and got you ready in record time.

The Independent Mum’s Handbook was created to give women and mothers the tools to live the life they want to as a mother, partner, and individual. Most of us wear many hats each day and that can be pretty overwhelming and stressful. But why do we get stressed? What triggers us to run away from stress, work through our stressors or freeze like a deer in headlights?

In this blog series, we are going to look at the physiology of stress starting with the autonomic nervous system, the physiology of the stress response and how we can turn down the stress response.

Blog 2 will give an overview of stress and then end with a short questionnaire to assess your levels of stress. Blog 3, will focus on the relaxation response. Blog 4, will delve into cognition ( thoughts) and stress, then we will end the series with a blog 5 on mindfulness and stress reduction. 

Let’s start at the beginning and take a look at your autonomic nervous system 

There are two parts to your autonomic nervous system. System one is the central nervous system that runs from the brain through the spinal cord and it is responsible for organizing and analyzing information. Whereas, the Peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of all nerves that are outside of the CNS. The Peripheral nervous system gathers sensory information from the environment and relays it to the CNS.

The PNS is split into two systems, the somatic nervous system which is responsible for the voluntary control of muscles and the autonomic nervous system which moderates physiological arousal such as the rapid heartbeat experienced by a fearful person. 

Fun fact – It’s called the autonomic nervous system because it’s ‘automatic.’ Think about breathing, your heart beating and digestion, they happen in response to what is going on around us. 

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system

Now, let’s dig a little deeper and look at the subsections of the autonomic nervous system. There are two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system excites our body and heightens our arousal. Essentially, it keeps us alert so we can respond to perceived dangers. Whereas the Parasympathetic calms us and turns things down. The PNS helps us to conserve energy and controls our digestion, blood pressure and heart rate. It helps us to find balance after a stressful situation.

The stress response

When we experience stress (like the example I gave in the introduction) our body responds by releasing adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline ( norepinephrine) and cortisol. The brain sets off an alarm and then messages are sent to the PNS. When Adrenaline is released it triggers the fight or flight response and causes cardiovascular reactivity. The cardiovascular system is responsible for pumping blood, energy, nutrients and oxygen to help our bodies to function. We need the oxygen and energy to go to our hearts as well as our arms and legs so we can fight or flee.

When we activate the autonomic nervous system in particular the sympathetic system we increase blood sugar, attention and focus which gives us tunnel vision to help us focus on the task at hand. Then we can decide whether to fight ( deal with the issue head-on), flight ( run away from problem) or, freeze ( stop).

Not everyone will experience the fight or flight response in the same way. Some differences will be due to genetics but, most of the difference is due to early experiences that may have sensitized your autonomic response. For example, people who have grown up in a hostile environment have a hypersensitive trigger that helps them to respond robustly to dangers that happened frequently in their environment.

It’s not only childhood experiences that can heighten our fight or flight response. Trauma that happens later in life can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stress and disease

As we know, the sympathetic nervous system activates the stress response. If the stress response is left on too long we can contract diseases related to chronic arousal of the stress response, these include diseases such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity 
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety and 
  • Post-traumatic stress

All is not lost though, we can retrain our autonomic nervous system in much the same way potty training allows children to go to the toilet at socially appropriate times.

The parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response

To dial down our stress response we need to engage our parasympathetic nervous system to allow us to find balance and enter the stage of rest and digest.

This is the opposite to fight or flight – it turns down the sympathetic response and is linked to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The rest and digest response is triggered by anything that helps us to relax. We want to decrease our heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and cortisol levels. 

This can be done by: 

  • Having a Massage 
  • Listening to relaxing music 
  • Getting hugs from a significant other

Engaging in these relaxing activities can help us to get some balance back after dealing with a stressful situation. The less time spent under heightened stress the less likely we are to be diagnosed with a stress-related disease.

And we all want to stay destressed, happy and disease-free, right?

Is there anything you do to help you engage your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the stress felt in your body?

If so, put some examples in the comment box below.

Catch you later,


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