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How Stress Affects the Nervous System

Updated on March 19, 2011

Stress affects the smooth working of what is known as the autonomic (unconscious) nervous system. Everybody is aware of the nerves under their conscious command. These respond to impulses from the higher centres of the brain, and it is these impulses that control the person's limbs, speech and all other voluntary actions.

However, most bodily functions - and the organs which carry them out, hidden away in the chest, abdomen, pelvis or skull - are not consciously controlled. Their nerve supply comes from the autonomic nervous system, which continues to work and direct the organs that are essential for life without conscious intervention. The autonomic nervous system controls the heart, the blood vessels, and thus temperature-control and such actions as blushing, breathing, the digestive system and the guts, the filling (but not usually the emptying) of the bladder, and some but not all aspects of the reproductive system. It also controls such mundane and yet essential activities as sweating and salivation.

Although this aspect of the nervous system is not under our control, its action may be determined by our state of mind. The smooth running of the autonomic nervous system reflects the amount of stress someone is suffering, so any change that produces symptoms may be a measure of the tension in someone's life. When people are over-tense, the nervous system is disturbed. Symptoms of tension include sweating too readily, blushing too easily, and rushing to the lavatory too often. Some people may even find that, when especially anxious, their voices are rasping and their tongues are dry. 

Most people will have noticed many (perhaps all) of these symptoms when they have been going through a difficult patch and are tense. The following questions allow you to check them for yourself.

  1. Does your voice start to croak if your boss is especially threatening or trying, your colleagues are uncooperative, or your partner is seductive?
  2. Do you sweat more readily than you would like to?
  3. Does your heart race too readily?
  4. Do you blush too often?
  5. Can you sit throughout a cinema performance or a lunch or dinner without having to rush to the lavatory?
  6. Do you feel the need to urinate even though you have just done so?
  7. Do you suffer from the urgent need to urinate? This may at times be so acute, or the control of your bladder so disturbed by the effect of tension on autonomic bladder control, that when very anxious, or even very emotional, you might leak like an overexcited puppy.

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