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Our Body's Response to Stress: A Physiological Overview

We're All Burning the Candle at Both Ends

We live in a fast-paced world where everyone is working around the clock to make it by. Stress comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms -- physical, mental, emotional, chemical, spiritual, political, financial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Stress is supposed to be a physiological process within the body that helps protect us, but it has turned into a silent epidemic that is leading to a wide variety of health problems.

Our stress response is a beautifully intricate physiological response to dangerous situations/environments -- our bodies take us into fight or flight. This is a normal response to stressful situations -- if you're being chased by a bear, you're going to need surge of adrenaline to get you to safety. That's not the problem we are focused on, the problem lies in the body's inability to inhibit the stress response.(3)

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) -- What is it?

The word "autonomic" translates to "involuntary" or "unconscious" -- meaning that this part of our nervous system controls all bodily functions without us having to step in and tell the body what to do. Think about it, when's the last time you've had to remind your heart to beat? What about telling your lungs to inflate/deflate when you breathe? How about telling your arms to hold your phone up as you're scrolling away? Never. Our autonomic nervous system controls, coordinates, and executes every vital process that takes place in our bodies. 24/7/365 this part of our nervous system is functioning without fail to keep us alive.

There are two branches that compose the autonomic nervous system (ANS): the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Sympathetic Nervous System

This branch of the ANS controls our "fight or flight" response which is responsible for producing physiological changes in the body that support increased energy expenditure, movement capability, and strength. The sympathetic nervous system produces the following changes within our bodies when faced with these situations:

Parasympathetic Nervous System

This branch of the ANS controls our "rest and digest" response which does exactly what it sounds like -- allows our bodies to heal and recover from a stressful encounter. This response to stress is vital for our body's ability to sleep, digest food and absorb nutrients, and heal from injury. The parasympathetic nervous system acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system and produces the following physiological changes:

It's important to remember that our brain doesn't merely shut off one of these branches of the ANS in order for the other branch to function. Rather, our central nervous system (CNS) functions to activate and inhibit each branch synergistically to produce the desired response to stress!

Most often, the problem lies in our body's inability to inhibit the sympathetic stress response -- "fight or flight". When this response gets stuck on, it can lead to a host of problems that may predicate some chronic health conditions. There is consistently new research coming out regarding the effect that the response to stress plays in our body's ability to function and especially the impact it has on our immune system + mental health.


Our body is a capable, self-sustaining system. It is able to appropriately respond to its environment and keep us safe, so long as there is no interference to its normal functional capacity. Stress plays a role in all of our lives, but managing and mitigating the effects of stress is of far more importance than most people think.

What should I do to help with stress?

There are many things you can do to help with your stress levels. Journaling, meditation, regular physical exercise, maintaining healthy interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, yoga, proper supplementation, healthy diet, structured/restful sleep, the list could go on. One of the more overlooked stress-management strategies that is proving to be increasingly helpful with more than just pain is chiropractic!

Most every chiropractor does something differently than another, but finding a chiropractor who is neurologically focused is imperative. Focusing on the nervous system opens the door for far more health benefits than just merely focusing on pain. It's so much bigger than pain, it's about improving the overall quality of your life!


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