How Your Sympathetic Nervous System Responds in Times of Stress and Fear

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It is not easy to control what is happening inside your body when fear or stress occurs.

Everyone responds to fear differently on the outside: they stop eating, or they eat everything in the house, they become immobilized or they act out and yell and scream, so you know what I mean. Unless we are trained to suppress these activities and the emotions, stress and fear cause, we react as our brains and early patterning from our parents dictate.

For example; my mother would get flustered and scream or whimper and my father would lose his temper and yell or stop talking for days on end. I have all of those emotional acting out responses as my first response. But, since I am a Surgeon and an Obstetrician, I have been trained to shut up and do what is necessary to save a life.  That requires control and a mantra…mine is: “Nothing has happened to you or your patient at this time that you cannot help, fix or whatever is appropriate”.

Emotions interfere with your ability to think and act logically. Most stressful situations in medicine require “me” (the doctor) to keep her head while those around me are losing theirs!” This is a necessary response for most doctors and therapists. Do not let them see you sweat or get upset or cringe because that affects your patients. For the rest of the world, their response to fear and stress is different. Doctors and therapists seem to them to be emotionless and aloof, while we are just trying to feel unaffected.

Doctors and therapists are not the only ones that have to learn to control their bodies under stress and be able to perform trained tasks. Emergency medical personnel, police, soldiers, pilots. Many professions require a level of performance under stress.

However, what no one can control easily is what is happening inside their bodies when fear or stress occur. These emotions flip a switch with the nerves in your autonomic nervous system that trigger the flight or fight response. A whole cascade of nervous impulses are sent from the brain to our bodies through these nerves and hormones from the adrenal gland flow out and cause us to: sweat, breath harder, makes our heart race, our palms to get damp, we cannot think logically and we regress to reactions we learned when we were little. Whether this is visible to those around you or not, these things always happen…unless you have learned techniques to counteract them.

The autonomic nerves involved are the vagus nerve which is part of the parasympathetic system and puts the brakes on the heart. With fear or stress the brakes are out and the faster and blood flow is concentrated on the heart the brain and the muscles, while the gut stops working. This system was meant to help us with fast and immediate stress that goes away quickly, like the response we have when being  chased by an animal.

The stress we are under is long lasting and dangerous. With chronic stress we wear our autonomic system out and over- use our adrenal glands. The adrenaline eventually fails, and we need to add amphetamines to think and act normally. Our cortisol is very high, and it causes us to be obese and not immune to viruses and bacteria. Our heart has no brakes, so we develop tachycardias (fast heart -beat) and eventually this will damage the heart and cause atrial fibrillation.

There are some methods you can learn to use to counter stress reactions and calm your nervous system. They include:

  1. Meditation
  2. Yoga
  3. Deep breathing (slowly and steady)
  4. Massage
  5. Human touch
  6. Music
  7. Thought stopping
  8. Trying to solve a logical puzzle which requires concentration.
  9. Repetitive work
  10. Play card games


This Health cast was written and presented by Dr. Kathy Maupin, M.D., Bio-identical Hormone Replacement Expert and Author, with Brett Newcomb, MA., LPC., Family Counselor, Presenter and Author.

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