The Three Pathways of Stress

Stress is regarded as one of the most prevalent medical issues that people suffer from in modern society. It is thought that stress is the root cause of 75% of GP visits. However, while people often visit the GP for stress related symptoms, the relationship stress has with the autonomic nervous system is often overlooked.

While we are not fully aware of the full effects of stress on the nervous system, we can understand a lot more by simply looking at the way stress affects the body, and the pathways it travels, when we are suffering from it.

So, what is stress?

Stress is defined as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’ It was developed as part of our defence mechanism and is an essential part of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction that we all have. Originally, this reaction would have purely been physical – running away from threats. But nowadays stress is more likely a response to mental stimuli. This does not lessen its impact however, as the brain cannot distinguish between what is real and what is perceived, and will react in the same way. Deadlines, financial strains and relationship issues all trigger the same hormonal response as being chased down by a tiger.

How does the body react to stress?

There are three main pathways in which stress affects us.

  1. Contraction of our connective tissue (fascia) also known as muscle guarding or emotional bracing.

When we were first evolving this was an extremely useful reaction – when bitten, for example, our muscles would tighten stopping the bite penetrating deeper or possibly wrenching our limb free. Now, when subject to stress we unconsciously tighten our muscles. When the stress is sustained, as mental stress often is, it can lead to chronic muscle or joint pain, inflammation, stiffening of joints, tendonitis, headaches and chronic aches and pains.

  1. The Autonomic Nervous System

In this response to stress our adrenaline is fired, to better aid the ‘fight or flight’ response. An adrenalin spike affects your:

  • Heart: beats faster and stronger, which leads to an increase in blood pressure
  • Lungs: rapid and shallow breathing
  • Eye sight: dilating of pupils to see at greater distance
  • Brain: turns on to become super active, increasing energy and alertness
  • Sweat glands: increase of sweating as the body prepares to cool you down
  • Intestines: non-essential functions are shut down, like digestion, as blood is diverted to our muscles ready for action

This is very useful in a dangerous situation. But when under constant stress this heightened state becomes the new norm, which can lead to anxiety, sleeping disorders, shallow breathing, heart problems and blood pressure problems. Also as adrenaline alters acid secretion in the digestive tract it can lead to digestive problems, spastic bowels and/or comprised gut action.

  1. Immune System – Activation of inflammatory responses

When stress occurs the pituitary gland releases hormones which act like an alarm to the rest of your body. These hormones, such as cortisol, kick start your body’s immune system. Like previous pathways, this was useful in pre-historic times when we suffered from actual injuries. Cortisol prevented inflammation and helped wounds heal quicker. But prolonged periods of stress, and heightened levels of cortisol, can lead to infections, inflammation and immune-mediated diseases like allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus as well as increased sensitivity of pain receptors, which changes the brain receptors and can lead to things like chronic pain and fibromyalgia.

At Morley Chiropractic we don’t just treat the symptoms presented to us. We look at the deeper issues underlying them and provide a long-term solution. We offer a variety of treatments so we can tailor them toward your specific issues, enabling us to offer long term cures, not short term bandages. To find out more just call us on 0113 2383693 or contact us here.

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