How does stress manifest for you?

How does stress manifest for you?

Stress manifests in different ways for different people, depending on a number of factors such as, the duration of the stress, coping mechanisms used in the past and how severe the stress is/was.

A key player in how stress manifests in your life is your nervous system. The nervous system interacts with your adrenals (responsible for releasing stress hormones) through the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA).

Through a series of hormonal cascades starting in the brain, physiological changes occur in the body which will, over time, determine how you respond to and adapt to stress.


Stress actually occurs in three different stages – the Alarm stage, the Resistance stage and the Exhaustion stage.

People go through the first two stages repeatedly in life as there will always be stressors. However, if stress is prolonged or intense, the nervous system will start to malfunction. This can lead to the exhaustion stage.

When we are looking at the nervous system in relation to stress we want to focus our attention on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS is divided into two separate divisions. One is the Sympathetic Nervous System and the other is the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is often referred to as the “fight or flight” nervous system because it prepares the body to fight or to flee from danger.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), also called the ‘rest, digest and repair’ nervous system, is responsible for digestion, elimination, and repairing the body. It also stimulates immune function at night during sleep.

There are also two phases of the stress response involving the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Ideally, once a stressful situation is over the SNS switches off and the PSN system kicks in to calm you down. And so internal equilibrium is re-established.

The problem is, when people are stressed out for long periods of time, the autonomic nervous system can’t keep up and will begin to malfunction.

So how will this manifest?


To understand this better I’ll use the analogy of a car. We can consider the sympathetic nervous system as the accelerator pedal and the PNS as the brakes. In this analogy, it is clearly problematic if one or the other wasn’t working properly.

If a person’s SNS is over-functioning (their accelerator is stuck “on”) it means that the fight or flight response has been triggered so much, or so severely, that it remains switched on and doesn’t turn off.

This is what’s known as hypervigilance, and it actually pushes a person to imagine danger when there is none and to over-react to stressful stimulus. Their tolerance for stress is also lowered significantly.

This may happen for example if someone has experienced severe shock, trauma, or physical abuse, or it may also be something traumatic that happened in their childhood.

So a person who is sympathetic dominant will develop a tendency toward anxiety, panic attacks, exaggerated startle response, hyperactivity, inability to relax or sleep, anger, hypertension, and increased muscle tension at rest. The majority of people who have irritable bowel syndrome, for example, are sympathetic dominant. These people need to avoid caffeine, nicotine and sugar, as all these help to activate and maintain the ‘fight or flight’ response. Relaxation therapies such as mediation, yoga or breathing practices will benefit this type of person, as well as anxiolytic and sedative herbs, and nervine tonics.

Another scenario is that an individual’s SNS (the accelerator) is working fine, but their PNS (the brake) is under-functioning. In this case, the person might experience similar symptoms. This is because they would have no way to calm themselves down. Using the car analogy, they would have no way to slow down the car. So again, this person might feel anxious, hyperactive and unable to relax, etc.

A common example of this is someone who can’t switch off from ‘work mode’ when they get home or has trouble falling asleep as their mind is too active. Can you relate?

Other people swing to a predominately parasympathetic state. So their accelerator is working fine, but their brake is over-functioning. So their brake is stuck “on”. In this case, they may experience depression or low mood, low thyroid function, lethargy, lack of energy, a tendency to gain weight and low blood pressure.

These are the kind of people who have a low threshold to stress. They also experience low motivation across all spheres of life. Often, they will say they are not stressed. However, this is often because they unconsciously avoid situations which may be stressful or difficult in order to not become overwhelmed.


People can operate this way for many years. However, when they’re unable to continually adapt after prolonged periods of stress, adrenal dysfunction will begin to manifest. Most often, these people will find that they’re unable to maintain previous levels of energy in all realms of life, and they will progressively deteriorate as time goes by.

Stress is something that we all experience but it’s how we handle it that will determine our long term health.

If you fall into any one of these categories, there is still much that can be done to regain your health and your handle on stress. Seeing a naturopathic practitioner is a great way to start this journey.

Looking at your situation, a treatment plan can be tailored specifically to your needs and lifestyle. Utilising herbal and nutritional medicine, as well as holistic lifestyle changes, naturopathic medicine is a powerful tool in your arsenal against stress and adrenal fatigue.

~ Michelle