The nervous system comprises the brain, the spine and the multitude of nerves throughout the body. The nervous system runs the body. In this respect, it is responsible for making sure the organs within the body do the right things at the right time. It is also responsible for making the body react to external stimulus. It schedules, monitors and makes decisions that keep the body functioning and aware. This is commonly termed homeostasis. As you can imagine this is an extremely complex task that we often tend to take for granted.
If the nervous system was to fail or become damaged a person could lose the ability to walk, talk, feel pain and a whole host of other things. So does stress affect the nervous system, and if so, does it cause it to malfunction ?
The nervous system is different from most of the other systems within the body because it is effectively the monitor of stress for the body. If the nervous system senses that a situation is stressful it causes physiological changes within the body to occur.
Some of these physiological changes include making the heart beat faster, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, drawing blood away from the stomach and extremities of the body and dilating the pupils of the eyes. This is known as the fight or flight response.
All these changes are necessary for the body in sudden stressful situations but are extremely damaging to the health when they stop being an exception and become the norm. This commonly occurs when the body is experiencing chronic or persistent stress or if the nervous system tells the body that this is the case.
This final point is important because the nervous system also controls how the body reacts after a stressful situation. This is often termed the rest and digest response. Amongst other things, the nervous system reduces the amount of energy hormones in the bloodstream, reduces the heart rate and redirects blood to the stomach and extremities. It is a way of saying everything is OK again, you can start eating again.
If the nervous system is constantly telling the body to be on a state of high alert then it can’t or won’t tell the body to calm down and relax. Ultimately this is dangerous to the health of the body. This is why relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga and deep breathing are popular methods for convincing the nervous system that everything is OK and that the body can start to relax.