When trying to understand stress, anxiety and depression it can help to have a very basic idea of how our nervous system functions
and the role it plays in the stress response; this will help us to understand our psychological health problems more clearly.
The human nervous system is very complex, but basically it is like a telephone network, the main switchboard is
the brain, with telephone cables (nerves) running from it down the spine connecting into every organ and system of the body.
The nervous system communicates with the body in two ways - via chemicals called hormones and by electrical impulses that
travel at a speed of 130 metres per second.
The nervous system is broken down into 2 major parts:
1. The Central Nervous System consisting of the brain and spinal cord.
2. The Peripheral Nervous System.
The peripheral nervous system further divides into the autonomic nervous system which is the part we are particularly
interested in with regard to stress, anxiety, depression and its related problems.
THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
The function of the autonomic nervous system is to run all the automatic functions of the body like breathing,
heart rate, digestion, endocrine (hormonal) system, etc.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into 2 divisions:
1. The Sympathetic Nervous System which initiates the stress response.
2. The Parasympathetic Nervous
System which induces the relaxation response.
The body's organs and systems are supplied by nerves from the
sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which can slow them down or speed them up via hormones and electrical impulses
depending on the situation.
Normally there is a balance kept between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous
systems, but in long term chronic stress this balance can be disturbed and either one of the sympathetic or parasympathetic
nervous systems can predominate over the other leading to stress related health problems.
THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT
When we perceive a real or imagined threatening stressor, the brain initiates the stress response by triggering
a series of chemical chain-reactions that prepare the body for fight or flight. This reaction is a healthy, vital defense
mechanism and triggers the release of hormones that affect every organ and system of the body. The hypothalamus, a collection
of tissues in the brain, which then stimulates the pituatary gland in the brain which then stimulates the adrenal gland on
top of each kidney to release its stress hormones. The stress response is the biological equivalent of a super charger on
The stress response hormones cause a number of biochemical and physiological changes which in the
short term are vital and healthy but if the stressor is chronic then these stress hormones can start to undermine our health.
Our stress response is designed to be triggered mainly in the short term.
In the long term these hormones cause
blood clotting to increase and blood cholesterol levels to elevate increasing the risk of many diseases such as heart disease,
stroke and angina. Stress hormones also weaken the immune system in the long term leaving us more vulnerable to infections.
Increases in blood pressure are another long term effect of these stress hormones increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack
and kidney disease. Chronically tensed muscles brought about by the stress response can lead to pain in the neck and back
Excess cortisol in the blood interferes with mood enhancing neurotransmitters called serotonin.
Disturbances in serotonin levels can be a factor in causing clinical depression and anxiety disorders as well as being linked
to insomnia, obesity and increased sensitivity to pain.
Fortunately, the body has a compensating system which
switches off the stress resopnse and releases chemicals that reduce blood clotting, reduce blood fats, lower blood pressure
and heart and breathing rates.
The human brain weighs approximately 2 lbs, and
it is 2 lbs of the most complex software on earth. It is so sophisticated it makes the most ultra modern super-computer look
like an abacus in comparison. In the book, "The Healing Brain", Dr Robert Ornstein said we should see the brain
not solely as an organ of rational thought but also as a gland. The brain is not just an organ used for thinking, it is a
vast chemical manufacturing complex, producing many potent hormones called neurotransmitters which can have powerful effects
on our psychological and physiological health.
Certain brain neurotransmitters have antidepressant and anti-anxiety
effects and regulate appetite. Research indicates the balance of neurotransiiters affect everything from sleeping, waking,
love, stress, anger, opetimism, pessimism, risk taking behaviour, aggression, drug abuse, alcohbol abuse, violence, anxiety,
Neurotransmitters are very powerful hormones that are secreted by the brain and nervous system
and have a powerful effect on our psychological and physical health. To date more than 60 different neurotransmitters have
been found and there are more to be discovered. These chemicals such as serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins,
dopamine, enkephalins etc., have a very powerful influence on our mood and to a degree on the way we think.
has indicated that our thoughts can influence these neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin for example, is positively
enhanced by factors like healthy diet, laughter, exercise, but chronic stress can lower serotonin levels. Here then we can
see biological and psychological factors at work influencing, among many other things, our mood.
Research on patient's brains scanned by Positron Emmision Tomography have indicated that the type
of thoughts we have infleunce the balance of brain chemicals, so by learning to think more positively and realistically we
can influence brain chemistry in a positive way, but other factors like an unloved, unsupported childhood can influence brain
chemistry and physiology in such a way that it makes us less able to cope with stress in adulthood. If we think mainly negatively
our brains secrete chemicals that can undermine our psychological and physiological health, whereas if we think more positively
we can cause chemicals to be secreted that boost our psychological and physical health.
We also need to be aware
that we are not exact carbon copies of each other, we have subtle biochemical and physiological differences that partially
influence how we react to stress. For example each person's nervous system can react quite differently to any given stimuli
or situation. Some people's nervous systems are more sensitive than others, more easily triggered by stress, and may also
take longer to switch on the relaxation mode, once the stress response has done its job . There can also be differences in
the amount of stress hormones we secrete in response to a stressor. People who have more of a tendency to being what is known
as Type A personality are more reactive to stress and can produce up to forty times more cortisol (a stress hormone), they
can produce four times as much adrenalin (another stress hromone),and also pump three times more blood to their muscles than
the more laid back Type B personality.
This does not mean however that there is nothing that the more biologically
reactive Type A's can do to reduce their stress. Research on Type A personalities who had suffered a heart attack showed
that if they were taught stress management techniques then they could dramatically reduce their risk of a second heart attack
when compared to Type A personalities who had not been taught stress management techniques.
Our genes can also influence our brain biochemistry as can caffeine, alcohol, diet, exercise and stress. These
factors can all have an impact in a positive or negative way on our brain chemistry and make us more vulnerable to developing
stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.
NEUROTRANSMITTERS AND RISKY BEHAVIOUR
Depression and anxiety,
Pre Menstural Syndrome, social phobia, anxiety, aggression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder,
violence, gambling, overeating, excess sex, drug abuse, have all been partly linked to low levels of neurotransmitters among
other factors. Some people believe that those who participate in these risky behaviours do so because they want to and while
this may be partly correct, the reason they are doing this is because it makes them feel better by boosting mood enhancing
neurotransmitters which they may be low in, such as serotonin. It has been found that when, for example, an alcoholic's serotonin
is boosted they loose the desire to drink in excess. This is how antidepressant drugs like Prozac work - they increase levels
of serotonin which boosts mood and resolves depression.
This is a very basic explaination of how the nervous system
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