Home > Health Articles > Emotional Health, Stress, and the Nervous System

By Pamela Israel
Peaceful Spirit Massage and Wellness Centers

The number one root of all illness, as we know, is stress.
- Marianne Williamson, Spiritual Teacher

Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.
-Lily Tomlin, Actress

Many people have the idea that physical health and mental health are completely separate when in reality, the two are fundamentally dependent upon each other. According to a 2007 article in Massage Today, research has shown that our emotions can and do have very specific effects on our bodies. In particular, heart rhythms and the ability to concentrate are directly related to emotions. If you’re struggling with negative emotions, your heart rhythms will be uneven and spiky and your ability to concentrate will decrease. However, if you’re having a good emotional day, your heart rhythms will tend to be even and steady and your ability to concentrate will improve. This connection between the emotions, heart rhythms, and brain function is just one of the many connections between mental and physical health that play a role in our overall well-being.

Arguably, the biggest threat to our well-being is stress. According to the American Psychological Association, 47% of Americans think there is too much stress in their lives. It seems that everyone has something that constantly stresses them, whether it’s a job, school, or family issues. Because stress has been talked about all over the media, another article about the dangers of stress is probably not going to be helpful. We know that we are stressed and we know that it is bad for us. So what are the most effective ways to combat stress and improve our well-being? There are literally thousands of websites, articles, and blogs written about how to reduce stress, but what it really comes down to is what works best for you. Everyone is different, and what reduces stress for one person may not reduce it in another. Therefore, a good method would be to keep track of things that work well for you and incorporate those things into your life. Suggestions of things that work well for a large number of people include massage, exercise, making time for fun activities and relaxation, and eating a healthy diet.

Relationships are an important aspect of emotional health but they can also be very stressful. Stress can get the better of us, especially around the holidays when we feel obligated to be around family more than usual. How do the experts recommend dealing with all the stress of being around relatives for the holidays? One of the more common suggestions is to try something new. Does your family always get together at Mom’s house for Christmas? Maybe this year, try going to a resort or some other place away from home. Another suggestion is to not worry about how things “should be.” Going with the flow can help relieve your holiday stress.

So now that we know all about emotional health and stress, how does that tie in with the nervous system? Well, in addition to your CNS, your body also has what is known as the peripheral nervous system. This system is divided into two parts: the autonomic and the somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system is also divided into two parts. Its parts are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When something stressful happens to you, your senses send the information to a region deep in your brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases stress hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system. The stress hormones cause the sympathetic nervous system to activate your “fight or flight” response, which gives you the energy to either fight or run away from whatever is stressing you. Once the stress is gone, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over and acts kind of like a brake to stop all the stress hormones released by the hypothalamus.

What we’ve just learned about the fight or flight response is what happens when you’re faced with an acute stressful situation. In other words, this is what happens when something scares you suddenly, such as nearly getting hit by a car or your friend jumping out from behind a corner. We evolved this way because, historically, we didn’t have constant stress. We were more likely to be confronted by life-threatening events, such as meeting a threatening animal or nearly drowning. But in today’s society, we have constant stress, which causes the stress hormones from the hypothalamus to be produced all the time. Overproduction of stress hormones can lead to a number of different problems, but most significantly, it can have harmful effects on the adrenal glands. For more information about the adrenal glands, check out our article on The Importance of Adrenal Health.