Kelsie Kenefick
Kelsie Kenefick
Professional Speaker
Award Winning Author

The Stress Mess

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How does stress affect my physical and mental health? What is the "fight or flight" response?


When you experience stress there are profound and dramatic changes that occur within the body and mind. The body puts out powerful hormones, such as adrenaline, to give you super strength, should you need it. These hormones put the autonomic nervous system into high gear so that you can effectively deal with the emergency. The “autonomic” part of the nervous system is the part that functions without thought. It functions automatically.

You probably don’t think about how blood flows through your arteries—it just flows! However, if you get migraine headaches or have high blood pressure, you can learn how to deliberately regulate vascular changes in the body (blood flow) to help control these problems. In the same way, you don’t have to think about it to make your heart beat, but if you have a fast or irregular heart rate, you can learn how to stabilize it. Other functions normally controlled by the autonomic nervous system are muscle tension, sweat gland activity, respiration and brain wave activity. We don’t usually think about controlling these bodily functions because they do their jobs automatically. Most people don’t even realize that it is possible to control such functions. The good news is that we can learn to control many physiological functions that affect symptoms by learning how to regulate this part of the nervous system.

The ANS consists of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the para-sympathetic nervous system. In a nutshell, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with an aroused nervous system and the parasympathetic is associated with a normal level of tension in the body and the mind. Nowadays, our nervous sytems are overstimulated and overaroused. It is almost like we are stuck in high gear. This can cause all sorts of damage to the body since the ANS controls just about everything. Digestion, heart rate, circulation, muscle tension, sweat gland activity, blood pressure and countless other bodily functions are usually not consciously controlled.

The sympathetic nervous system has only one job: to protect the body when there is a perceived threat or danger. The physiology to carry out this job developed in humans thousands of years ago. Early people had to protect themselves physically from lions, bears and other tribes, so it was critical that the body have strength and energy in an emergency. You may have heard of the term “fight or flight,” which is how we describe this physiological response to danger. When threatened, the body gears up to fight and protect itself or to flee from the danger.

This mechanism still serves us today in crisis situations. For example, when you are driving in traffic, you may need to respond quickly to avoid an accident. If you were to need to run into a burning house to save a loved one, your body would be charged up with strength and energy. You may have heard stories in which a mother is able to lift something as heavy as a car off her trapped child. Usually, a single woman or man would not have the strength to do that. But when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, adrenaline, and other powerful hormones, are released into the bloodstream to give the body an extra boost of strength and energy.

Think about how your body would react if you felt threatened. Your heart rate would probably increase, your muscles would tighten and your breathing would speed up. Many other changes would occur as well. Your body would automatically begin hormonal alterations and biochemical changes in the brain. Take a look at the following chart, which summarizes some of the ways your body is affected by the fight-or-flight response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.

Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

Body PartSympatheticParasympathetic
EyesPupils DilatePupils Constrict
Heart RateIncreasesDecreases
Blood VesselsConstrictDilate
Skeletal MusclesTightenRelax
DigestionShuts DownWorks Normally
PancreasInhibits Insulin SecretionPromotes Insulin Secretion
Sweat GlandsIncrease SecretionSecrete Normally
BrainSecretes AdrenalineFunctions Normally

The body’s ability to do all of this automatically in order to protect itself is truly amazing. The pupils dilate to let more light in so that you can see more clearly if you are in danger. Digestion shuts down because it is not important in times of real emergency when the body’s energy is needed elsewhere. The pancreas inhibits the secretion of insulin so you will have a higher blood sugar level to give you extra energy. Adrenaline is secreted to give you more strength than you would have normally.

Let’s look at two changes the fight-or-flight response triggers in the nervous system that are relevant to migraine headaches: muscle tension and blood flow. All animals, including humans, have an unconscious instinct to tighten up the neck and shoulder muscles when they feel threatened. This occurs because animals instinctively try to protect the throat, which is where most animals are attacked.The neck and shoulder area is almost always the first place people experience muscle tension because of this programmed physiological response to a threat.

Many people, including those with migraines and high blood pressure, also respond to stress by constricting their blood vessels. Animals, including human animals, tighten the muscles around the blood vessels so they will bleed less if they are attacked. The blood goes away from the extremities and towards the viscera, or primary organs, in the main part of the body. This is one more of the body’s remarkable tricks for protecting itself in the presence of perceived danger.

Today, most of our stressors are psychological rather than physical. For example, we might be stuck in a traffic jam, have problems with our computer working properly or feel rushed to get everything done in too little time. Unfortunately, our bodies react to psychological stressors in the same way they react to physical dangers. This can be very damaging physiologically because we usually have no outlet for the hormones and tension that build up in the body from psychological stress. If it were a physical danger that threatened us, we would be able to release the adrenaline and tension from the body by running or fighting.

Having an over-aroused nervous system has become the norm in our fast-paced, competitive society where we live in a state of constant information overload. Modern society can keep people in a perpetual state of stress. Our wonderfully adaptive bodies begin to consider a high state of stress in our nervous systems as normal. This situation is difficult to avoid because even people who do not have many personal stressors still experience tension related to world and social conditions.

Unless people know how to release the stress that builds up in their body and mind, there will unquestionably be physical damage as a result. It can take the form of high blood pressure, ulcers, anxiety, insomnia, migraine headaches or numerous other disorders.

However, stress does not have to be physically, psychologically or emotionally damaging. It is not so much what happens in our lives that causes our nervous system stress as how we react to what happens in life. I remember reading once that a poll was taken to determine what events in life caused people the most stress. Speaking in public was ranked as the most stressful event, while dying was ranked at number four. Apparently, most people would rather die than speak in front of a group of people! However, there are those people who love to get up in front of others and give a talk. It doesn’t make their heart beat faster or their palms sweat; their nervous system is not adversely affected in any way. This is because they are not reacting to the situation. You can learn how to respond to situations that life presents rather than reacting to situations. As a result, you will not trigger your nervous system to shift to the sympathetic fight-or-flight response.


Kelsie Kenefick