Too Tired To Fight Or Flight? How Stress Affects Our Nervous System


Stress is a common denominator for most of us. Whether we’re late to work, experiencing financial issues, dealing with family stress or health problems, it can sometimes seem as if we’re never truly stress-free, and can almost start to seem normal.

In reality, chronic stress is anything but normal and can cause quite a few problems if it goes on for too long. Here we break down what makes stress so detrimental, and how you can finally start to manage it.

The Stress Response: A Modern Catch-22

Typically when we hear anything related to “stress” nowadays, we automatically see it in a negative light. In reality, our stress response has been one of the single most important factors in keeping us (humanity) alive and thriving. 

Back before our modern lifestyles, humans had to be on the lookout for all types of dangers and natural disasters, and be prepared to act quickly. For instance, being ambushed by animals or fighting with other tribes caused us to develop a built-in response to either fight or flee in order to save ourselves.

The important thing to note about this type of stress was that it was sporadic, and it was very physical. Unfortunately, our stresses have morphed from wild animals into work stress, relationship stress, financial stress, etc … and our bodies can’t tell the difference between whether we’re in a life-or-death situation, or just leaving a tense work meeting.

This has lead to many of us being in constant “fight-or-flight” mode, which can take our stress response from something that saves our lives … to something that, ultimately, hurts us.

How Chronic Stress Can Put a Wrench in Your Health … and More

Our stress response is governed by our Central Nervous System (CNS). This system is further broken down into your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Your PNS is responsible for relaxing your body and bringing you back to baseline after a stressful event.

You SNS, on the other hand, governs your fight-or-flight response and is responsible for sending a flood of hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline throughout your body when you’re experiencing stress. These hormones elevate your heart rate, increase your breathing, and shut down digestion to prime your body for action.

As you can see, this reaction is a great one in times of sporadic stress. However, if you’re experiencing chronic stress day-to-day, your SNS is constantly activated. This means that its flood of chemicals and hormones keeps coming, and can, unfortunately, cause a wide range of serious health effects.

  1. Stress can lower your immunity

The cascade of fight-or-flight hormones through your body during times of stress is (to put it mildly) not loved by your immune system. Researchers have found that various compounds that regulate our immune response, as well as our natural immunity against pathogens, is highly suppressed during times of chronic stress.

Specifically, chronic stress suppresses Th1 cytokines or molecules that activate our cellular immunity against a wide range of infections and diseases. Simultaneously, suppressing Th1 cytokines allows other Th2 cytokines to “take over,” which worsens allergies and even stimulates autoimmune disease. Research shows we have those elevated cortisol levels we spoke of earlier to thank for this effect. [*]

  1. It can increase the risk of stroke and heart problems

Stress hits your cardiovascular system in a variety of ways. The release of fight-or-flight hormones epinephrine and adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure (which can increase the risk of stroke or heart attack) while also signaling to your brain to produce more white blood cells. This increases inflammation in your arteries, which can also up your risk for stroke. [*]

  1. Stress can contribute to aging

Stress increases the development of unstable molecules in our bodies called free radicals. When left unchecked, these can damage our DNA, which leads to the tell-tale physical signs of aging such as wrinkles and greying hair. This is referred to as oxidative damage and is one of the reasons why we’re encouraged to eat plenty of “antioxidant” foods, because of these mop up free radicals before they can cause damage. However, if our stress levels are consistently high, our bodies may not be able to contain all of the damage – which can lead to faster aging.

Along with this, studies also show that highly stressed patients have reduced DNA repair as compared to patients with less stress. If your DNA cannot repair itself, you could be left with more rapid signs of aging and even an increased risk of cancer. [*] Specifically, stress inhibits a protein called p53, which is a tumor-suppressing protein. When stress is chronic, this protein is consistently suppressed, leading researchers to theorize it may allow DNA damage to occur and tumors to form more easily. [*]

In addition, chronic stress can cause widespread inflammation, which has been linked to a variety of diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

  1. It can interfere with your mood

Since our nervous system, brain, and emotions are so tightly linked, we often see stress impacting mood. Many studies show chronic stress alters brain structure in a way that is linked to depression and low mood. [*]

Other studies show prolonger early life stress can even increase our risk for many psychiatric disorders including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder by dysregulating certain functions of our nervous system. [*]

  1. Stress can affect our brain health

Studies have shown that chronic stress can cause structural changes in our brains that impair attention, spatial memory, decision making, and behavior. Not to mention, many of these studies also link these changes to depression and other mood disorders like we saw earlier. [*]

The Best Techniques to Help Manage Stress

Luckily, there are several physiological hacks we can use to reduce stress levels and restore our nervous system back to baseline. 

  1. Breathing Techniques

It turns out your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal to combat stress. If you’ve ever meditated, you may have been exposed to the idea of using certain breathing patterns to relax your nervous system or even to promote focus and awareness. Studies show breathing techniques like belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) can significantly reduce cortisol levels. [*]

Other techniques like box and nasal breathing are also extremely effective and easily integrated into your day.

  1. Taking Adaptogens

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that work to help your body “adapt” to stress in a way that reduces its negative effects.  Studies show they can help improve the function of your adrenals during times of elevated cortisol, and can also increase cellular energy and help prevent DNA damage that occurs from the free radicals produced by stress. [*]

Adaptogens are a great option to help manage stress long-term.

Common adaptogens include:

  • Ashwagandha
    • Siberian and Asian Ginseng
  • Schisandra
    • Rhodiola Rosea
    • Licorice root 
  1. CBD

CBD or cannabidiol is a non-psychoactive (aka: it won’t get you high) phytocannabinoid that is extracted from the Cannabis Sativa plant. Studies show that CBD interacts with our own built-in endocannabinoid receptors in a way that may reduce stress levels and have a therapeutic effect on our nervous system. Other studies also show CBD may reduce heart rate and blood pressure spikes caused by stress. [*]

You can read more about CBD and how to take it here.

  1. Meditation

Meditation still reigns as one of the best ways to cope with chronic stress. Studies show meditation programs significantly reduce anxiety and depression scores in participants, while also reducing cortisol. [*] [*]

Even as little as 15 minutes a day of meditation may help soothe your nervous system and provide relaxation. A good strategy is to combine a meditation session with deep belly breathing or other breathing techniques for a 1-2 punch.

As you can see, being chronically stressed can do a number on your body and mind. However, by implementing these hacks, you can help mitigate its negative effects.

Do you have any stress-relieving tricks to share? We’d love to hear them.