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  • Writer's pictureSimone Grove

How regulated is your nervous system

Updated: May 8

Stress is now a natural part of daily life for most people – but whilst occasional stress is a normal and unavoidable part of being human, chronic stress is incredibly harmful to our health. Studies and research are now emerging which show that being in a constant state of stress negatively impacts upon almost every aspect of our wellbeing – from our energy levels, mood and digestion to hormone balance and immunity.

Why is stress damaging to our health?

Whilst it’s unpleasant to experience stress, our bodies are actually equipped to deal with it. The issue arises when we experience stress on a constant or regular basis – which is otherwise known as chronic stress. That’s because whilst our nervous system is biologically designed to deal with occasional stress, it can’t sustain the stress response over an extended period of time. Many of us now live in this state permanently, which is having an incredibly damaging effect on our health.

Chronic stress has been linked to sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, muscle tension and pain, diabetes, depression and increased incidence of obesity. For those with no support it can also lead to damaging coping mechanisms such as alcoholism and drug abuse. Based on these findings, doctors and specialists are now exploring the correlation between increased incidences of chronic stress and the upsurge in chronic illnesses and conditions such as autoimmune disorders and even cancer itself.

What is the fight or flight response?

The fight or flight response is another word for the body’s biological response to stress and stressful situations. It is a very primitive, evolutionary system which is designed to protect us from threats – which in the past came from physical danger. But now, what our nervous system perceives as a ‘threat’ can be incredibly varied – from being cut up on the motorway or suffering burnout to dealing with a difficult child or dreading an upcoming deadline at work. This means that although our life is not actually in danger, our body still reacts as if it is and the fight or flight response is stimulated in the same way.

I’ll cover some common symptoms you can experience during the fight or flight response in more detail in part two of this blog – they include increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweating, nausea and rapid breathing. When stress is chronic we may not even notice that we are experiencing fight or flight at all, as it becomes a baseline state of being.

During the fight or flight response the body also shuts down any systems that are not essential in that moment (including digestion and hormonal activity) and focuses all its energy on systems that can help you to survive the perceived threat.

How does stress impact upon our nervous system?

Whether it is triggered by life-threatening stressors or not, the stress response is a natural and automatic occurrence when we perceive a threat or find ourselves dealing with stress. The fight or flight response is managed and triggered by our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for physiological processes such as digestion, heart rate and respiration. It can be divided into two parts – the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as ‘rest and digest’ and is our homeostatic (or ‘natural’) state of being which supports normal bodily functions, healing and recovery. This is the state we want to be in most of the time. But the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action and alertness, and it’s this that is involved in the fight or flight response.

Whilst occasionally experiencing fight or flight isn’t damaging, you can imagine the impact on the body and the nervous system itself when you are in this state for a prolonged period of time.

Many people are living in fight or flight on an almost constant basis, when in fact we should be predominantly in rest and digest. This means that many people are struggling every day with poor digestion, lack of sleep, hormonal imbalance and metabolic dysregulation – contributing to an overall lack of wellbeing and lower quality of life as a result.

Stress and a diagnosis of cancer

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is an undoubtedly stressful time. There are so many unknown elements - so much anxiety and worry over what to expect during treatment and what the outcome of treatment may be. Stress caused by cancer affects every aspect of our lives, from our careers and relationships with families to our relationship with ourselves - and it can also affect our physical health, and if it goes unmanaged this can impact upon your recovery and healing over time.

For more on how stress affects our health and healing after a cancer diagnosis and practical tips to help you manage stress and anxiety, read Part Two of this blog now here or take a look at my Cancer Wellness Packages or my membership called The Cancer Wellness Path here.

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