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What Is the Relationship Between the Autonomic Nervous System and Stress?

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  • Written By: Amy Rodriguez
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
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  • Last Modified Date: 11 April 2014
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The autonomic nervous system and stress react with one another within the human body, causing anything from a fight-or-flight feeling to mental tranquility. Stress can take an internal form, such as a chronic disease, or be externally applied from family and professional commitments. The human autonomic nervous system tries to alleviate stress to maintain hormonal and mental balance.

The sympathetic and the parasympathetic networks comprise the autonomic system. Immediate hormonal reactions to stress occur from the sympathetic network, protecting the body from physical or mental harm. The parasympathetic network resumes control over the sympathetic system once the alleged threat, or stress, has been solved or removed. A feeling of calm and tranquility fills the person's mind, allowing the body to return to normal functioning.

The autonomic nervous system and stress are constantly battling. The body naturally wants to remain calm and balanced, but everyday stressful life requires both the sympathetic and parasympathetic networks to work to ensure the person's overall physical and mental safety. Stress causes the body's adrenal gland to emit the hormone adrenaline, as directed by the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system. Adrenaline gives the body immediate energy and alertness for dealing with the stress. The heart beats faster, causing more oxygen to infiltrate the muscles and brain for rapid responses to external situations.

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The autonomic nervous system and stress can combine to hurt the body if the stress exposure is long term. Hormone secretions occur from other glands within the body, preventing any extraneous energy exertions. A main system impaired by the autonomic nervous system and stress mixture is the immunity network. Long term stress will impede the body's natural ability to fight disease, causing more illnesses over time.

The human body does need small amounts of stress for an overall healthy life. Daily challenges, from work projects to a school essay paper, help the body secrete neurotransmitters. These hormones, like norepinephrine, help the brain form new connections for memories and newly learned information through the interaction of the autonomic nervous system and stress.

Some people may not realize that they are in a constantly stressful situation, wherein the autonomic nervous system is battling continually between calm and alertness. For example, city dwellers, with a persistent traffic hum and loud industrial noises, tend to have a higher level of stress compared to a rural dweller. Experts suggest keeping life as simple as possible, including reducing electronics use. Even electromagnetic fields, emanating from electronics, cause hidden stresses for the human body.

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Discuss this Article

shell4life
Post 4

Stress caused me to develop very shaky hands. After working for a few months at my new job and dealing with constant deadlines and pressure, I had trouble holding a cup of water still in my hands.

It was embarrassing when I would go to a store and hand a cashier money. She could see how badly my hand was shaking, and I even had one cashier put her hand under mine and hold it still before putting my change in my palm. It calmed me a little, though the shakiness didn't go away.

I've heard that human touch can soothe nerves and stress, and I believe it's true. There is something so comforting about an embrace or even a hand on your shoulder, and it seems to absorb some of the nervous energy that is constantly being emitted from my body.

Oceana
Post 3

I had always been a laid back person until I fell head over heels in love during college. Unfortunately, the relationship was unhealthy, and I developed my very first wave of panic attacks.

I had heard my friends talk about them before, but I never thought they would happen to me. I had always been so relaxed and calm. However, falling in love had turned my very foundation on its end, and I felt as though I were coming to pieces in every direction.

This sort of stress is the worst kind, because you lose your center. I suddenly felt out of touch with reality, and I felt faint. I had to hang my head between my knees and pretend that I was somewhere else.

I'm glad that I already knew about panic attacks before I got one, because if I hadn't, I likely would have hyperventilated. They are very scary, and I'm sure they are worse if you don't know what is going on with your nervous system.

wavy58
Post 2

@OeKc05 – I don't know what the science behind the armpit pain is, but I have experienced the metallic taste before. My doctor told me that it is just adrenaline.

There are actually people who stay in a state of adrenaline rush all the time, and they have to deal with that taste and the feeling of doom constantly. I couldn't live like that.

My doctor said that for patients like this, he recommends ten minutes of high intensity exercise. This helps get the adrenaline out of their systems. I knew that exercise was good for your health, but I had no idea it could alleviate excessive adrenaline.

OeKc05
Post 1

I get really stressed out while driving. It's bad enough having to deal with regular traffic, but if someone suddenly swerves or makes a move that causes me to believe they are going to hit my car, I get a sudden adrenaline rush, and the effects linger long after the threat is gone.

Almost immediately after the initial rush, I get a metallic taste in my mouth. This is so weird, and I know that it is somehow related to the sudden panic. Does anyone else ever get this, and do you know what it is that I am tasting?

I also get a strange stabbing pain in both armpits when this happens. I'm totally clueless about what this could be, and everyone whom I've ever told this to has looked at me strangely.

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