Feeling stress in your body is a common physiological response to various situations and triggers.
Stress is not necessarily bad. It’s a normal part of life. But too much stress for too long can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.
In order to get a better understanding of stress, let’s begin by learning a little bit about our nervous system.
We have three autonomic (unconscious) nervous system circuits comprised of many branches of nerves that run throughout our head and body in the peripheral nervous system.
Our Three Autonomic (Unconscious) Nervous Systems
1. Ventral Circuit
When this circuit is activated the most of the three circuits, we feel regulated, safe and connected to others and can manage stress and cope efficiently. It is composed of many nerves including the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs through our face, ears, throat, heart, abdomen, and surrounding organs. Since the it runs through our heart, it is considered to be our internal pace maker. When activated through various techniques like focused breathing, meditation, or co-regulating with a safe person, it can slow down our heart rate and therefore help us to feel calm and safe and we can socially engage with others. This circuit is also known as our social engagement circuit.
2. Sympathetic Circuit
When this circuit is activated the most of the three circuits, we feel motivated and energized when fear is not involved. If fear is involved then we feel anxiety, restlessness, panic, irritability and have racing thoughts. This circuit is also referred to as fight and flight.
3. Dorsal Circuit
When this circuit is activated the most of the three circuits, and it’s related to fear, we feel immobilized, shut down, in a state of collapse, depressed, hopeless, and have a loss of energy and motivation.
Here is the “unconscious” part. We have an internal home surveillance system called Neuroception. Neuorception’s job is to respond quickly to danger, either perceived or actual, and activate one of the three circuits discussed above. It is a passive process, meaning it is always scanning the environment within us, outside of us, and between us and other people. It scans for danger cues without our awareness.
We don’t have to think about scanning for danger, it happens automatically!
Now that you have a better understanding of your nervous system…
What takes place when you feel stressed?
Stress is the body’s way of responding to perceived or actual threats or challenges. This is when our Sympathetic circuit is activated by our home surveillance system – Neuroception. If there are danger cues within us, outside of us, or between us and others, either our Sympathetic circuit or our Dorsal circuit is activated.
Here is what you may experience when your Sympathetic circuit is activated (due to danger cues within, without or between):
1. Fight or Flight Response
When your brain perceives a stressful situation, it triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare your body to either fight the threat or flee from it. This response can lead to physical sensations such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and shallow breathing.
2. Muscle Tension
Stress often causes muscles to contract and tense up, leading to sensations of tightness or discomfort. This muscle tension can occur in different parts of the body, including the neck, shoulders, back, and jaw.
3. Digestive Issues
Stress can affect your digestive system, causing symptoms like stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea. This is because the body redirects blood flow away from the digestive organs to other areas when it perceives a threat.
Stress can trigger tension-type headaches or migraines. The muscle tension and changes in blood flow associated with stress can contribute to headaches.
5. Chest Tightness
Stress can sometimes make your chest feel tight or constricted. This can be due to increased heart rate and shallow breathing patterns.
6. Respiratory Changes
Stress often leads to rapid, shallow breathing, which can result in a feeling of breathlessness or tightness in the chest.
7. Sleep Disturbances
Stress can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to physical fatigue and further exacerbating stress-related symptoms.
8. Immune System Suppression
Prolonged or chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and infections.
9. Nervous System Activation
The autonomic nervous system responds to stress by activating the sympathetic branch, which prepares the body for action. This can result in physical symptoms like increased sweating, a dry mouth, and a racing heart.
10. Emotional and Cognitive Impact
Stress can also affect your thoughts and emotions, contributing to physical sensations. For example, anxiety and worry can lead to muscle tension and physical discomfort.
It’s important to recognize these physical symptoms of stress and find healthy ways to manage and cope with stress.
Techniques like deep breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, art, animals, music, regular physical activity, getting enough sleep, and seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can activate our social engagement nervous system (Ventral circuit), and can be helpful in reducing and managing stress and its physical manifestations.