As we all know, our lives right now are quite stressful as we try to deal with the containment of COVID-19. Things are happening now that have never happened in some people’s lifetimes which can be scary and confronting. It’s normal to be anxious about a situation that you have never been exposed to before, but too much anxiety and stress can have detrimental effects on your immune system, leaving you prone to infection and sickness.
Stress is confusing and temperamental. Sometimes, it can be a motivator that helps you rise to the occasion. Other times, it can be overwhelming and exhausting. If your stress is chronic, it will have negative impacts on your health.
The stress cycle begins with an “external stressor”, otherwise known as the trigger. This could be anything, from watching your favourite AFL team in a Grand Final to that snarky comment from your work colleague.
All your senses switch on to respond to this trigger by scanning for danger and assessing safety. This ability to know if the environment is safe or not is called neuroception and it happens without you knowing!
If your senses detect a threat, a signal is sent to the part of your brain, called the amygdala, which processes emotions. Once the amygdala is triggered, a signal is then sent to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, two sections of the brain responsible for maintaining balance in your body. All of these sections communicate via the autonomic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that controls functions without your conscious awareness, e.g. heart rate, blood pressure etc.
When the hypothalamus and pituitary gland detect danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the half of your autonomic nervous system that rules the “flight or fight” response. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released which stimulates the flight or fight response, resulting in excitation of your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
When your sympathetic nervous system is activated, the other half of your autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system is suppressed as they both can’t be active at the same time. Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body. The suppression of it results in your immune and digestive systems standing down.
Being stressed for a long period of time leaves your immune system suppressed for a long period of time. This can lead to frequent illness and infection as your body’s ability to fight off infection is largely diminished. Chronic stress also increases your risk of developing heart and digestive disorders.
Dr. Tim Roberts
Ascot Vale Osteopathy
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