Panic attacks and night terrors are rising as the coronavirus disrupts schedules, The Huffington Post reported. People often have difficulty adjusting to temporary changes that have no end date in sight. The nervous system plays a major role in stress response.
In efforts to combat and “flatten the curve” of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, countries around the world have increasingly imposed restrictions on travel and public gatherings, even recommending that people self-quarantine. Businesses have slashed hours and shuttered storefronts, leaving many employees stuck at home without paychecks to pay mounting bills. The uncertainty and looming financial concerns have taken their toll.
“It creates even more serious challenges for those with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder,” The Huffington Post article said. “Mental health experts worry that as weeks at home turn into months, more Americans could begin to have issues ranging from depressive episodes and panic attacks to suicidal thoughts.”
Our nervous system plays a major part in how we respond to stress.
Sympathetic Vs. Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The part of the body’s nervous system that responds to stress is known as the automatic nervous system or autonomic nervous system. It generally governs involuntary actions such as blushing and getting goosebumps. In turn, the autonomic nervous system has two halves.
“The first half is the sympathetic nervous system—all hell breaking loose, emergency, arousal, fight or flight, secreting adrenaline, the whole stress response, all of that [is] sympathetic arousal,” said Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. “In contrast, you have the second system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which mediates calm, vegetative functioning.
“For the most part, they work in opposition, and what we will see is stress and the stress response is all about turning on the sympathetic nervous system to an extremely severe extent while turning off the parasympathetic.”
One example Dr. Sapolsky gave is the heart’s stress response. He said to imagine a zebra running for its life. Its sympathetic nervous system spikes its blood pressure and heart rate in order to deliver more energy to the functioning muscles.
Stress response doesn’t just activate organs though. The gastrointestinal tract, he said, actually begins to temporarily shut down. This is why when we get nervous or stressed, our mouths get dry.
The Triune Brain and Stress Response
The “triune brain” is a once popular theory that offers a clear look at brain function by imagining the brain divided into three layers or sections that evolved over Earth’s history. While the structure portion of the theory has since been disproven, it offers a compelling look at brain structures and stress response.
“You’ve got your first level of the triune brain, which is the part of your nervous system that has all these ancient pathways, your hypothalamus, [and] all sorts of brain stem areas,” Dr. Sapolsky said. “This is one of the most ancient parts of the brain. This is a part of the brain [that’s] similar to a lizard’s, and has the same regulatory subareas, the same projections.”
This primal portion of the brain, it was theorized, performs regulatory behaviors. It receives sensory signals that make us shiver when we’re cold, for example.
The second layer is the limbic system, which is in charge of emotion, and was thought to have developed during mammalian times. “It’s taking information about the world, which is emotional in nature, and turning it into a signal down to that reptilian part of the brain,” Dr. Sapolsky said. “Suddenly your heart is beating faster, not because you’re bleeding, but because you’ve seen something; you’ve thought something. You have had a strong emotion evoked.”
The third layer in the triune brain model is the cortex. Dr. Sapolsky said that the cortex deals with abstract reasoning and processing, long-term memory, and so on.
“Think about children in refugee camps, think about ozone layers thinning out, think about your eventual mortality, and suddenly, you might turn on the stress response,” he said. “Suddenly your cortex does a classically cortical thing, some abstract thought, and suddenly your heart is beating faster. Suddenly your salivary glands are doing something different.”
While the portion of triune theory detailing specific locations of the brain has been abandoned, it provides a compelling look at the mind-body connection involved in our stress response. It may also be a clue to the panic attacks and night terrors many Americans have suffered recently due to the coronavirus upsetting their normal schedules.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky contributed to this article. Dr. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his A.B. summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York.