The many fight-or-flight changes that can transform you from a relaxed latte sipper into a fighting machine are triggered by at least two different bodily systems: the nervous system and the endocrine system These two physiologic systems, in turn, trigger the body’s immune system
The nervous system—in particular, the part called the autonomic nervous system—acts like a train engineer, telling your body when to race ahead with the fight-or-flight response, and when to throttle down. It also controls bodily functions crucial to life that you never have to think about, like heartbeat, body temperature, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). These two branches are opposites in the sense that one revs things up, while the other calms them down.
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The SNS swings into action when danger is detected, flipping on the fight-or-flight response and sending electrical messages throughout the body. These messages speed up the heart and lungs, slow the intestines and kidneys, send more blood racing through the muscles and brain, and otherwise prepare the body for action. The SNS is aided by the endocrine system, a “special messenger system” for the autonomic nervous system The endocrine system consists of hormones, the glands that secrete them, and the target sites that respond to their messages.
A hormone—from the Greek word for “set in motion”—is a chemical substance produced in one part of the body that travels to another part to make something happen. One of these hormones is epinephrine, which is produced and secreted by the adrenal glands. Epinephrine travels through the bloodstream to various targets, such as the heart, which it then instructs to beat harder and faster. Another hormone, called cortisol, increases the level of sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream, ensuring that there’s plenty of fuel available during a crisis.
While the SNS readies your body for battle or flight, the PNS does the opposite. Once the danger has passed, the PNS slows your heart and breathing rate, brings your depressed intestinal activity up to normal, and otherwise calms everything down. The calming-down mechanism is just as vital as the revving-up one, for it would be nearly impossible to exist in a permanent state of fight or flight. However, because chronic pain is almost always a very stressful experience, those in pain can become trapped in a nearly perpetual state of fight or flight. Caught in the storm, they cannot calm themselves down.
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