The ANS (autonomic nervous system) is our unconscious control. It controls vital health-related functions such as hormone secretion, blood sugar levels, body temperature, breathing, digestion, the rate our heart beats at, our circulation and immune function.
The ANS itself is split into two further divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls our fight-or-flight or hide (or fight, flight or freeze) response.
The parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body into a completely different gear – it moves us into a state of resting and digesting (and is sometimes referred to as the rest-repose system). When the parasympathetic nervous system takes precedence, the body focusses on digesting food, and calming and resting most other activities (so we breathe more slowly, and our heart rate and blood pressure drops – we are on a nice, even keel). In this state we often feel elevated emotions like joy for life, gratitude, love, appreciation, connection, compassion,
Let’s say that if the sympathetic nervous system is the gas pedal of a car, the parasympathetic functions as the brake.
Prolonged periods of stress that don’t pass within minutes or hours cause the secretion of an adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). ACTH instructs the adrenal cortex to release cortisol which then primes the body to handle the perceived stress, making sure that stored energy within the body is moved back into the bloodstream as sugar, to give the body the fuel to keep going.
Basically when we are on prolonged spurs of stress it is like if we are eating huge amounts of sugar, which we know it is very bad for us!
General adaptation syndrome is the body’s way of dealing with prolonged periods of stress. The adrenal glands continue to release cortisol in an attempt to keep the body primed.
If you reach this stage of the stress response you may feel tired, weepy, anxious, agitated, with poor concentration and very run down.
This state may arise perhaps after a stressful working day, during exams, or when going through a financial or relationship issue or social trauma.
If stress continues past this point, and an individual can’t find a way to relax and rest, the final stage in the stress response will occur- exhaustion.
Your energy resources and your immune system are often depleted too. You may feel mentally fatigued, physically exhausted and you often start experiencing poor health, with an endless cycle of infections.
When we are under stress the digestive system does not receive the same supply of blood as they would under parasympathetic control. The digestive tract isn’t receiving the optimum amount of blood to nourish the digestive organs and to transport nutrients away. Stress can cause upset within the digestive tract, with symptoms such as excess acid, diarrhoea and IBS being linked to both short- and long-term stress.
To counteract all these physiological responses the body needs to shift gear, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. When it does, the body can slow down and focus on digestion and healing.