What is the sympathetic nervous system?

Mar 25, 2024
stressed woman

Last week we talked about the parasympathetic nervous system- your rest/digest.... chill mode. Didn't catch it? Read about it HERE!

This week, we are going to explore the other side of the autonomic nervous system - the sympathetic nervous system. This is your fight/flight/freeze mode. In today's hustle culture, this part of our nervous system is often on overdrive. I believe that knowledge is power and once you understand what the sympathetic nervous system does, how it is activated, and ways to regulate it . . . I know you'll start to feel a whole lot better! 

What is the Sympathetic Nervous System?

The sympathetic nervous system is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. Often referred to as the "fight or flight" system, the SNS is responsible for mobilizing the body's resources to respond to stressors and threats. When activated, it triggers a series of physiological changes aimed at preparing the body to either confront the stressor or flee from it.

Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System. Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System. Difference. diagram with connected inner organs, brain and spinal cord. vector illustration autonomic nervous system stock illustrations

How Does the Sympathetic Nervous System Respond to Stress?

When faced with a stressful situation, whether it's a looming deadline at work or a heated argument, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into action. The kicker is that it doesn't matter if the "threat" is real or perceived (so all that worry or imagined conversations or concerns about the future will activate this system). Here's what happens when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated:

  1. Activation of Stress Hormones: The hypothalamus, a region of the brain, detects the stressor and signals the nearby pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol into the bloodstream.

  2. Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and more forcefully, leading to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This ensures that oxygen-rich blood is quickly delivered to the muscles and organs that need it most.

  3. Dilated Pupils: The SNS triggers the dilation of the pupils, allowing for better vision and improved focus on potential threats.

  4. Suppressed Digestion: During the stress response, blood flow is redirected away from the digestive organs and towards the muscles, heart, and brain. This can result in digestive issues such as stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea.

  5. Enhanced Respiratory Rate: The SNS stimulates rapid breathing to increase oxygen intake, supplying the body with the energy needed for a fight-or-flight response.

  6. Sweating: Sweating is another common response to sympathetic activation, helping to cool the body down during periods of increased physical exertion.

While these physiological changes are essential for survival in threatening situations, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can take a toll on the body over time, contributing to health problems ranging from cardiovascular disease to anxiety disorders.

The Sympathetic Nervous System and Women Over 30:

Women over 30 are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of chronic stress and sympathetic overdrive. We often faces unique stressors related to career advancement, family responsibilities, aging parents, and hormonal fluctuations. Moreover, we are also more prone to hormonal imbalances, such as perimenopause or thyroid dysfunction, which can exacerbate stress symptoms and disrupt the body's natural equilibrium.

Impact on Hormonal Balance:

The interplay between the sympathetic nervous system and overall hormonal balance is complex. Chronic stress can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones in the body, particularly cortisol and adrenaline. Prolonged elevation of cortisol levels, known as hypercortisolism, has been linked to a myriad of health issues, including weight gain, insulin resistance, immune suppression, and mood disorders. Similarly, imbalances in adrenaline levels can contribute to symptoms such as anxiety, palpitations, and tremors.

Stress can exacerbate existing hormonal imbalances such as those associated with perimenopause or thyroid dysfunction. For example, fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels during perimenopause can amplify stress sensitivity and trigger symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, and sleep disturbances. Similarly, thyroid disorders, such as hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's thyroiditis, can lead to fatigue, depression, and cognitive impairments, further exacerbating the effects of chronic stress - talk about mind-blowing! 

Balancing the Sympathetic Nervous System:

While it's impossible to eliminate stress entirely from our lives, there are several strategies you can employ to manage stress effectively and keep the sympathetic nervous system in check:

  1. Prioritize Self-Care: Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your routine. This includes getting an adequate amount of sleep, eating a balanced diet, engaging in regular exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises. CLICK HERE to get a video tutorial on the 4-7-8 breath - great for relaxing!

  2. Establish Boundaries: Learn to say no to activities or commitments that drain your energy or overwhelm you. Set realistic boundaries at work and in your personal life to prevent burnout and maintain a healthy work-life balance. I know this is sometimes easier said than done. Personally, it has taken a lot of energetic work (specifically heart and throat chakra) for me to get better at this. If this is something you struggle with, know that you're not alone! 

  3. Cultivate Social Support: Surround yourself with a strong support network of friends, family, and peers who can offer emotional support, practical assistance, and a listening ear during challenging times. Relationships are crazy important- as Jim Rohn says, "You are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with" or "show me your friends and I'll show you your future". Make sure you choose who you spend your time with wisely! 

  4. Practice Mindfulness: Incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily routine to cultivate present-moment awareness and reduce stress reactivity. This can include mindfulness meditation, body scanning, or simply taking short breaks throughout the day to check in with yourself.

  5. Seek Professional Help: If you're struggling to cope with stress or experiencing symptoms of burnout, don't hesitate to seek professional help from a therapist, counselor, or healthcare provider. They can offer personalized guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.

  6. Balance Hormones Naturally: Explore natural approaches to balance hormonal levels, such as optimizing nutrition, managing stress, getting regular exercise, and considering supplementation with herbs or nutrients that support hormonal health. Follow me on instagram for more hormone balancing tips - @lolamacleandnp

  7. Incorporate Relaxation Techniques: Experiment with different relaxation techniques to activate the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest, relaxation, and digestion. These may include progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, aromatherapy, or biofeedback. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter below so you know when the next blog post comes out. We are going to talk more about vagal nerve stimulation next week and get our zen on 😉


In conclusion, the sympathetic nervous system plays a crucial role in our body's stress response, mobilizing resources to help us cope with threatening situations. However, chronic activation of the SNS can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health. 

By understanding how the sympathetic nervous system works and implementing practical strategies to manage stress effectively, you can take proactive steps to prevent burnout, improve overall well-being, and cultivate a greater sense of resilience in the face of life's challenges. Remember, self-care isn't selfish—it's essential for maintaining balance and vitality in all areas of your life.

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