What is Stress - Actually?

There is a tremendous amount of information available today about the effects of stress. If you ask the average person if they are stressed, most people will be quick to tell you more than you wanted to know. But what is stress? What are the mechanisms and processes that make it a “bad” thing? Everyone seems aware that they feel bad during periods of stress; hands get cold, excessive sweat in the armpit, students get sick during finals week etc... But how is this all related, and how far reaching is stress?

We will start with the physiological definition and work our way into more concrete examples. Everything that happens in your body without you thinking about it is handled by your autonomic (automatic) nervous system (NS); i.e. growing nails, regulating the pH of your blood, blinking your eyes, the muscle tone in your shoulders, the blood flow through your kidneys. All these things are handled for you and it is a blessing that we don’t have to think about it, because most of it wouldn’t get done.

Your autonomic NS however, gets it done because it is all part of your incredible innate intelligence. The autonomic NS has two branches; the Sympathetic and the Para-sympathetic branch. These two branches of the autonomic NS take turns running the show behind the scenes for you and they have a complementary but opposite function. The sympathetic NS is concerned with responding to threats that are outside of you or that you perceive to be outside you. The para-sympathetic NS responds to threats that are inside you. Here is how it works.

If you encounter a stressor such as a wild animal, an attacker, or a car racing towards you in your lane, your brain sets off an alarm that there is severe, acute danger. If you don’t respond and act within seconds or less, your life could be at stake. In this situation your brain tells the sympathetic branch to fire on all cylinders to mobilize resources to respond to the threat. Within a fraction of a second your pupils dilate, your heart speeds up, your blood pressure increases, your hands get moist , sticky and cold, your breath rate increases and your muscles tense up. This is all part of the “Fight - Flight” response so that you can act quickly and fight or get out of the way. The major chemical released in the body is adrenalin (aka epinephrine) and all the chemical and physical processes initiated are about increasing fuel delivery and generating energy for the anticipated fight.

At the same time the body starts preparing for what will happen if the crisis lasts more than a couple of seconds and for the possibility that you will get injured. The adrenal glands will start producing Cortisol which has a primary effect of raising blood sugar and the secondary effect of suppressing the immune system. In a crisis, we are also likely to get injured, so the body starts preparing just in case so that the wound will stop bleeding faster and there will be plenty of resources to heal the damaged cells. So it increases the amount of clotting factors in the blood and it increases the amount of LDL cholesterol, since LDL is an important component to rebuild damaged cell membranes. (Which means that sticky blood and high LDL are a result of stress rather than a deficiency in blood thinners and statin drugs – Imagine that)

So those responses are all mediated by the sympathetic NS. Now let’s look at the para- sympathetic NS; what does it do.

In a nutshell the para-sympathetic NS stimulates digestion, gut motility, enzyme secretion, immune system, healing, repair and growth. So you can eat a “healthy diet”, but still be under nourished if you can’t digest and absorb the nutrients. You can exercise and eat well and still get sick all the time if your immune system isn’t balanced properly.

alpharetta chiropractic - nervous system

So if the body has such tremendous innate intelligence, why would it do a “stupid” thing like turning off the systems that keep us healthy?

The simple answer is that the body will allocate the resources where they are needed the most at any given time; the sympathetic NS acts to keep you alive in the next few seconds, the para- sympathetic NS acts to repair you to function in months and years to come.

So which one is more important? Well, obviously, they are both important, but if you don’t survive the next few seconds, it doesn’t matter how healthy your tissues are. You would just make a delicious meal for whatever was chasing you.

This brings us back to the original question; what is stress?

And now we have an intelligent scientific definition. Stress is anything that activates the sympathetic NS.

This is a very important distinction and the reason I went this roundabout way to define stress is this. Physiological stress is so much more than the emotional state of “stress”. It is estimated that 95% or more of stress is subconscious, and when you start learning more about what activates the stress response, you’ll agree that 95% is a low estimate.

Stress is anything that your body has to respond to. If a cell is required to respond to a demand (signal), the sympathetic NS has to provide a little extra fuel to that cell so that it can do its job. Stress is structural, chemical and emotional. That means stress is; too much exercise, not enough exercise, poor posture, altered joint mechanics, poisons, chemicals, drugs, foods to which you are allergic. Standing after sitting is a stress, moving from heat to cold and vice versa. All of these examples are things the body has to respond to.

So both the sympathetic and the para-sympathetic NS respond extremely intelligently in an emergency situation. They have saved the life of mankind through the millennia. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that these systems are virtually the same in all animals (yes humans are animals) and the serve us well in the jungle, on the savannah and in a hunter gatherer life-style. Our genetic make-up hasn’t changed significantly in the last 40,000 years, but our life styles have. If you are trying to stay alive among predators, your stresses tend to be really large but relatively few. Your system is designed to deal with the crisis and then calm back down and regenerate when the danger was over. Furthermore the increase in blood sugar created by the burst of Cortisol was typically used up by vigorous physical activity while escaping whatever was chasing you or vice versa.

Today, we have lifestyles that create thousands of little stressors; so small that most of them go un-noticed; we just assume that’s how we’re supposed to feel, but they still generate small bursts of activation of the sympathetic NS. Now since our stress response is on a constant state of moderate activation, our para-sympathetic NS is in a constant state of de-activation. The body doesn’t “have time” to digest, heal and regenerate. The result; headaches, skin rashes, chronic infections, allergies, erectile dysfunction, infertility, ulcers, indigestion, irritable bowel, constipation, G.E.R.D., high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, auto immune disorders, cancer, etc… How many people do you know over 40 that does not have any of these symptoms and who is not taking any prescription drugs. Are you beginning to see the connection?

Yet with all those sources of stress, the largest source of all may be your thoughts. Even though they take place inside you, they are usually dealing with events outside of you that you are trying to figure out how to defeat, control, solve or improve. The interesting thing about thoughts is that even though we believe that we are consciously thinking those thoughts, an estimated 60,000/ day give or take, our thoughts are very habitual. Probably more than 98% of your thoughts today are the same ones or very similar to those that you had yesterday. This makes our thoughts quite habitual and to the extent that we get stressed by our thoughts, we have habituated stress responses molded into our neural pathways.

So even though we have developed lifestyles where our stress is more intellectual than physical, our stress response, which is subconscious, still reacts the same physical way as in all other animals.

The reason I wanted to write this article, is that even though there is much agreement about the effects of stress, there is generally poor understanding about the reasons it does what it does. So here are some important points to remember about stress:

  • Stress is when your physiology switches to sympathetic dominance (fight-flight).
  • Whenever you have sympathetic dominance, your healing and regeneration (para- sympathetic) is proportionately turned off.
  • A stressor can be chemical, structural or emotional.
  • Stress responses are often not consciously perceived.
  • Stress (sympathetic) is about keeping you alive right now and has nothing to do with health.
  • Healing can only take place when the body is not perceiving a threat.
  • Habitual thinking is one of the greatest sources of stress.
  • Physical activity is one of the greatest relievers of stress

If you read this far you might be saying; well this is all fascinating, but it’s pretty much all doom and gloom; what do we do to make it better?

I thought you’d never ask?

Now we have to ask one more question. What is it, (besides a fear-full environment) that influences the actions of the autonomic NS; i.e the sympathetic and parasympathetic NS?

The answer is – Your brain. The way the brain works is that even though the autonomic nervous system is part of the central nervous system, there are higher and lower levels in the hierarchy. The higher level is called the cortex; that’s the top and outside of the brain. The lower level is called the brainstem and is the lower inside middle portion between the bottom of the brain and the spinal cord.

Whenever there is an emergency, the brainstem, the more primitive part of the brain takes over and runs the show, because now in fight-flight we don’t have to be clever, we just need to survive. Then when the danger is over, the cortex steps in and turns off the stress response. Therefore the better the overall function of your brain/cortex, the smother and quicker your body can leave the stress behind and return to balance. The weaker the cortex and the more often you get stressed the more the stressed state tends to “get stuck”.

So the solution is to learn more about what really are the stressors in your life and try to reduce them, and then to learn what practices you can incorporate into your life in order to strengthen your cortex and your para-sympathetic pathways to break the sympathetic dominance.

Here are some proven suggestions.

  • Exercise.
  • Yoga.
  • Meditation.
  • Breathing practices.
  • Chiropractic adjustments (actually the fastest and most powerful way to activate the cortex that we know of).

It is also highly recommended to have a Stress Response Evaluation performed. That is a simple and non-invasive test to find out how your nervous system responds to stress, and it can be repeated to see how you are progressing.

Our bodies are really smart, but our life styles have changed so much since our genes last changed that we have to become a little smarter and learn a few tricks to help our bodies out. The good news is that we today have a really good understanding of these mechanisms, so there is no reason to postpone feeling better, getting healthier and gradually moving up to peak performance, joy and full life enjoyment.

If you want to learn more, call Alpharetta Chiropractic - Wellness For Life at 678-638-0898 if you have questions, or to schedule an appointment for a Stress Response Evaluation.


This is very interesting.

I always thought the body was always healing itself even while under stress

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