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Lynn L. West, PhDc, BCETS, LCPC
Autonomic Nervous System Instability
Lynn L. West & Associates, LLC

Autonomic Nervous System Instability

Children and adults who live in environments with a significant amount of stress in their lives often present with multiple signs of autonomic nervous system stability. While the individual does not perceive stress in their life, symptoms associated with pathophysiology of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) include increased or rapid heart rate, feelings of anxiety and panic, dizzy spells, variable blood pressure readings under different conditions or at different times, fatigue, malaise, irritability, and episodic digestive or gastric reflux problems, a tendency to get dehydrated. Frequently, medical tests fail to demonstrate any organic cause of symptoms; however, careful examination of eating habits and fluid intake (water), eating times and amounts of food, poorly balanced intake of necessary food and water to maintain a healthy body, and reliance on significant amounts of sugar and salt in the diet.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the central nervous system in charge or regulating involuntary vital functions, including the activity of the heart and blood pressure, the digestive system and endocrine glands. Its divided into two subsystems the sympathetic nervous system, which responds to stress by speeding the heart rate, constricting blood vessels, decreasing digestive activity, raising blood pressure, and preparing the body to fight or run (the flight-or-fight response); and the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts this response by slowing heart rate, increasing digestive and gland activity and relaxing muscles. The flight-or-fight response is the bodys response to perceived threat or danger. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released into the blood stream, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. In times of chronic stress, when the body has been worn to exhaustion by being in a constant state of alarm, the consequence is pathophysiologic impairment of the ANS, known as a “traumatic stress response” syndrome or disorder, resulting from a traumatic impact of the neuropathways that undergird the ANS response system. The physiological consequence on the body is damage to neuropathways resulting in the failure of the ANS to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether real or imagined. An unstable ANS is one sign of a traumatic stress response.
Signs of ANS instability include irritability, muscular tension, inability to concentrate, memory problems, headaches, accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath fainting, panic attacks, constriction of blood vessels to some parts of the body and dilation of blood vessels to the muscles affecting digestion, ability to eat a lot without gaining weight, etc.
In addition to a medical evaluation with a primary care physician, it is recommended that anyone with these symptoms participate in individual and or family therapy. The most important thing to understand is that an individuals body triggers the fight-or-flight response system, based on the cellular communication and wiring in the body run by the brain. Just because someone cannot identify an outside trigger that caused these symptoms, does not mean that the body has not reacted to an imprinted trigger that has been damaged through chronic stress.

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