How Stress Works

How Stress Works

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Three thousand years ago, Indians believed that there was a heating and cooling system in the body, effected by a "solar" and a "lunar" nerve, so named because the sun (solar) represented warmth and the moon (lunar) coolness. They reasoned that the solar nerve generated heat and fire (energy) in the body and the lunar nerve did the opposite, creating passivity and inertia. They believed these two nerves were located on either side of the spinal column.

Three thousand years later, in the light of current understanding of the nervous system, it appears that they were referring to the "Sympathetic Nervous System" and the "Parasympathetic Nervous System," which can be located in the spinal column. For sake of brevity, we shall refer to them as "Sympathetic" and "Para." The Sympathetic pumps fuel into the body during a "fight-flight" action and Para- "puts out the fires." In other words, Para- calms and cools the system to make sure that the fires don't keep burning forever.

The Sympathetic and Para- originate in the brain, run down through the spine, and branch out to nearly every organ, blood vessel, muscle and gland of the body including the sweat glands and hair roots. Therefore, when there is a crisis or an individual thinks there is a crisis, the entire body is mobilized and put into the high gear. Thanks to the Sympathetic, we blush, get goose flesh, piloerection (hair standing on end) and double or triple our heart rate and breathing pace.

The Sympathetic's effects on the body are wide and far reaching. When it is activated, it dilates pupils, blocks saliva production, dilates bronchi ("air pipes" to the lungs), speeds up heartbeat, blocks the digestive process, activates adrenal glands, diverts blood to the muscles, stimulates bile production and inhibits bladder contraction, to name just a few of its actions.

When people experience these changes during a panic attack or a spell of high anxiety and nervousness, they often fear they might be "going crazy" or "getting out of control." Once they learn that it is the "normal" operation of the Sympathetic and their body is working exactly as it's supposed to during an emergency, their fears subside.

Anxiety and panic attack "symptoms" such as sweating, hot flashes, nausea, diarrhea, heart pounding, smothering, dizziness or lightheadedness, tunnel vision, dry mouth, chest pain, etc. result from the normal operation of the Sympathetic. For example, when our pupils dilate and eye muscles become tense, it may result in either tunnel vision or a fixed stare.

When bronchi are dilated and chest muscles contracted, an individual may swallow too much air and thus experience smothering, shortness of breath and other breathing problems. This may lead to still other side effects. One may also experience dizziness and lightheadedness because of the buildup of carbon dioxide and excess or deficit of oxygen.

The mouth may become dry because the Sympathetic stops the production of saliva. After all, when you are fighting or fleeing from a predator, you don't have time to chew or savor food. For the same reason, the digestive process goes out of whack, laying seeds for such problems as constipation, acidity, heartburn, etc., in the future. However, during the fight-flight action itself, diarrhea often appears on the scene. There is "a method in his madness," as Shakespeare wrote. Mother Nature thinks that when one has to fight or run, it doesn't make sense to do so with "extra baggage." Traveling light is the best policy at such times.

However, Mother Nature has also endowed us with the parasympathetic nervous system. It does the opposite of what the Sympathetic nervous system does and thus restores balance in our lives. For example, if the Sympathetic dilates the eye's pupil, Para- constricts it; if Sympathetic inhibits flow of saliva, Para- stimulates it; if Sympathetic accelerates heartbeat, Para-slows it down; if Sympathetic dilates the bronchi, Para- constricts them.

To go on with a few more examples of the checks and balances, the Sympathetic inhibits peristalsis and secretion of certain juices to aid the digestive process, the Para- stimulates peristalsis and secretion. The Sympathetic inhibits bladder contraction, the Para- does the opposite.

When properly utilized during an emergency, the Sympathetic can save our lives. But, misused for long periods, as often happens in a chronic stressful situation, it can cause sickness and disease.

In a time of "good stress," our total energy is mobilized. Thinking, senses and memory become sharper and movements become more swift and efficient. But when we get accustomed to sitting around and worrying about things, our thinking and senses are blunted and memory and concentration impaired.

One must learn to turn off the sympathetic nervous system quickly. You can turn it off by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation system of the body. You can turn on this system by doing this: (1) Breathe calmly (2) Relax the major muscle groups (3) Divert attention from the noxious emotions and thoughts (4) Focus on a pleasant memory or thought.

E-mail a link to this article to a friend. 

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 2001, Mind Publications 


Click for Dr. Sharma's credentials
Dr. Vijai Sharma
Your Life Coach
By Telephone

Feedback- Let us know how we are doing

Terms and Conditions

Web site designed and maintained by Chanda Taylor