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Chronic Stress and Your Nervous System

By Cary Cook BSN RN
 
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Stress and anxiety are ubiquitous words. Everyone feels stressed out at some point in her life. Some people are anxious every day. Very few people would say they never feel stressed.

Anxiety has an effect on our brains and bodies. A little stress is good-it gives you focus and a boost of energy thanks to cortisol and other hormones. But long-term or generalized anxiety can affect your health in a big way. It can depress your immune system and have a negative effect on brain function.

The fight or flight response is the term for the stress or anxiety response that releases stress hormones. It is a response by your neuroendocrine system to a stressful event. A commonly-used example is being chased by a lion. If a lion is chasing you, your sympathetic nervous system kicks out stress hormones that make you more alert, faster, and more focused so you can escape. Once the threat is gone, your parasympathetic nervous system tells your brain and body it is okay to relax, because the danger is gone. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems help maintain balance.

If you have chronic stress or generalized anxiety, your sympathetic nervous system perceives many things as threats that are not dangerous. Your neuroendocrine system keeps pumping out those hormones, but it starts to get tired. Constant stress or anxiety decreases your ability to learn, and can cause memory problems. Chronic release of cortisol, which is your body’s natural steroid, causes weight gain around the midsection. It decreases inflammation but at the same time, depresses your immune system. This makes you more vulnerable to infection.

Stress hormones help your body keep essential systems going, but they shut down functions not necessary to your survival. This can cause sexual dysfunction, and reproductive problems. Stress hormones make the blood-brain barrier more permeable, making it easier for toxins to cross the barrier into the brain.

So what can you do to prevent chronic stress and anxiety from making you sick and forgetful? Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation have been shown to decrease stress.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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