Parasympathetic Nervous System Symptoms of Stress

ImageThe parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is part of what's called the autonomic nervous system. The PNS generally decreases physiological arousal. The other piece of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which we discuss in another section, increases physiological arousal. Between them, they handle the general housekeeping of the body and do so fairly automatically. Hence, the term "autonomic."

The PNS takes care of the "vegetative" or domestic chores of the body. It handles details such as slowing heart rate, digestion, excretion of urine and feces, and sexual functions. PNS symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, "acid stomach," gas, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, difficulties with urination, and sexual dysfunctions develop as a consequence of the physiological arousal associated with acute stress.

PNS symptoms of stress involve irritations of stomach, gut and bowel tissue, and disruption of smooth muscle functions. Symptoms can persist long after the stress that caused them has vanished. Even when the irritation or dysfunction is minimal, the tissue or muscle is often sensitized to recurrences. It thus takes less and less stress to generate symptoms. If these symptoms run in your family you may have a genetic predisposition to this type of disorder. A prior illness or irritation may also have weakened the tissue. Acute stress then exacerbates that weak link. With each recurrence, the possibility of permanent tissue damage increases and severe conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, urinary retention, or cystitis may occur.

Your PNS symptoms of stress, therefore, may become increasingly severe or may change over time depending upon the amount of damage created by earlier acute stress episodes. For instance, what started as "acid stomach" may lead to heartburn which may lead to ulcers. It depends upon how frequently you experience stress and how great the cumulative damage to tissue and smooth muscle created by each acute episode.

Click on other stress symptoms you may have experienced to learn more about what you can do about them as well.