Health Psychology Meets The Central Nervous System

The central nervous system protects the physical body like the Gladiators of Rome protected their turf. On duty twenty-four hours a day, standing guard to fight any foreign substance that poses a threat to physical health. When people experience an event that is physically or emotionally threatening, the body will react biologically. This physical response ensures that it has whatever it takes to maintain balance. I believe that if people understand how this system functions, they can then learn ways to strengthen their body. Thus, ward off physical and emotional illness. The prevention of disease is at least somewhat in our control and is the health psychology association.

What is The Central Nervous Systems Function?

Internet Archive Book Images/Public Domain

Internet Archive Book Images/Public Domain

The brain and spinal column form the Central Nervous System. All thoughts that flow through the mind, every action and emotion experienced in the world flows through the CNS. We can compare the Central Nervous System to being like a computer’s motherboard, which without it the computer would not exist. The CNS is the motherboard and control panel of the human body. People activate a computer by turning it on, which alerts the motherboard to turn on the hard drive, which in response stimulates the operating system, and then sends signals to start programs. When triggered, the central nervous system initiates a system of physical reactions which interprets and communicates experiences, thoughts, feelings and movements to the rest of the body, via a network of organs, cells and neurons.

For optimal survival, the human body does its utmost to maintain a sense of balance or homeostasis, which means that it wants to remain at a constant. The CNS is responsible for overseeing the functions that allow people to survive. It determines the best response to stressful situations by launching adrenaline or cortisol to help adapt to the threat. The Central Nervous System also regulates the production of serotonin which controls daily living functions like hunger, sleep and the desire for sex.

Physical Health and the Immune System

How does the body maintain health in response to physical and/or psychological stress? The immune system contains many organs, containing billions of immune functioning cells. The thymus gland and bone marrow form and mature the cells. The peripheral immune system includes the blood, lymph nodes, and the spleen. The endocrine system produces hormones and supports the central nervous system by releasing the relevant ones that allow us to survive. The real gladiators are the white blood cells that continually circulate, searching for foreign invaders in the blood and tissues. The white cells function is to begin the immune response and to protect against daily invasions of viruses and bacteria. Indirect invasions on physical health are environmental factors, which include anxiety, a poor diet, air pollution and smoking. Direct invasions on physical health are contacts with contagious diseases, such as flu’s, colds, measles, and toxins such as consuming foods that contain pesticides.

by Barbara Müller-Walter Creative Commons

by Barbara Müller-Walter
Creative Commons flickr

All living organisms strive to maintain balance, or homeostasis, which is routinely challenged by internal or external triggers. Stressors’ are triggers which are physically harmful, and they can be emotional or physical. Stress threatens stability, and the process of homeostasis is to re-establish balance through behavioral and physiological responses that attack the intruders. (Viruses, Bacteria) The magnitude and chronicity of the stressor is significant because when any trigger exceeds a certain magnitude it activates the central nervous system’s adaptive response. In other words, a little anxiety in life that is short lived (forgetting where you placed the car keys) is much less physically damaging than facing a housing foreclosure. The challenge is learning techniques or ways of coping with life’s problems to decrease the biological response.

The Health Psychology Connection to the Immune System

The Immune System works extremely hard trying to destroy and eliminate stress and anxiety reactions. The adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol that is discharged during moments of tension in an attempt to reduce the pressure. Centuries ago while hunting for food humans were subjected to the dangers of being low on the food chain because the animals killed were often wild and fierce. It was the Central Nervous Systems physical response mechanism that helped to ensure survival. Primitive people would react to a confrontation from a dangerous animal by fighting, if prepared or running away in flight.

In modern times, the anxiety that people experience tends to be lifestyle orientated. As a result, stress is chronic and severely damaging to physical health. Anxiety is a silent killer that causes serious health complications, related to heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure.

The Two Types of Stress

By Stephen Day Creative Commons Two types of Stress

By Stephen Day Creative Commons flickr
Two types of Stress

  1. Acute Stress is an immediate physical reaction to something in the world and can be negative or positive in nature (Surgery, Accidents, Arguments, Marriage, Birth of a baby, a job promotion).
  2. Chronic Stress is a persistent physical reaction to something constant in life and may relate to work, finances, family problems, abuse, disease, physical pain, diet, and smoking.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for triggering the response directed towards the anxiety in which initiates the “fight or flight” reaction. This response means that the body decides whether it will surrender (give in to infection) or manage (fight it off) the threat. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for relaxing the body once the stress has been removed from the situation. When anxiety levels remain constant, the relaxation time does not occur and the individual is vulnerable to becoming ill.

Inflammation is the primary cause of all chronic, degenerative diseases such as; fibromyalgia, allergies, arthritis, asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lupus, chronic fatigue, and a host of others. Inflammation causes a strong response from the immune system to pathogens that cause injury and physical illness. When the stress response does not turn off or relax, the immune system is overloaded and is in a weakened, compromised state  causing people to become susceptible to contracting a physical illness.

Causes of Chronic Inflammation of The Central Nervous System

  1. Toxins (Pollution, Pesticides, Food poisoning)
  2. High levels of insulin in the blood (Diabetes)
  3. Infection (Skin Conditions, Poor Healing)
  4. Oxygen free radicals (Cell Death, Aging)
  5. Allergens (Pollen)
  6. Lack of Exercise
  7. Chronic stress
  8. Medication
  9. Insomnia
  10. Diet

Health Psychology and the Cortisol Connection

As mentioned, both cortisol and adrenaline are hormones that are manufactured by the adrenal glands in the kidneys. When people come in contact with an acute stress situation, the adrenal glands will respond by producing adrenaline. If people are exposed to prolonged stress the body will react by producing a different hormone called cortisol, which is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. This physical reaction comes about because of the desire to maintain that sense of balance. When exposed to chronic stress, the physical body will react by releasing cortisol in preparation for the fight or flight situation. Cortisol effectively mobilizes the body on every functioning level to ensure it has sufficient incentive to survive the danger.

When someone has chronic stress, the role of cortisol is to improve the ability to maintain balance by releasing this hormone in hopes of achieving: 1. Immediate energy and strength to endure, 2. A Reduction or a desensitization to the pain, 3. Improvement in memory function.

These chemical processes and the release of hormones for survival are typical. However, high levels for extended periods of time are dangerous to psychological and physical health. Therefore, these protective responses can be extremely hazardous. When stress hormones circulate in the bloodstream for prolonged periods of time they can cause physical conditions such as blood clots, angina and heart disease.

In response to chronic stress, the increase in cortisol produces the following physical effects.

  • Slows down digestion, which relates to weight loss and weight gain.
  • Increases the blood sugar level, which is a direct link to Diabetes.
  • Reduces the inflammatory response, and may increase susceptibility to physical irritations and infections.
  • Increases blood pressure and dilates the pupils causing a strain on the heart.
  • Depresses the immune system by deactivating white blood cells decreasing the ability to fight off infections, viruses, and bacteria.
  • Metabolizes protein, fats, and carbohydrates by converting them into glucose and increasing the probability of becoming diabetic.
The Central Nervous Systems Physical-Psychological Connection to Depression

Cortisol is present in the bloodstream, and the amount available is regulated by the hypothalamus. A healthy hypothalamus will ensure that cortisol is present in the right amounts and that it is secreted at the right times. People have the highest levels of this hormone between 8 AM and 4 PM.  Laboratory studies performed on people who suffer from depression reveal an unusual amount of cortisol in the blood stream, either having it peak at odd times or having a consistently high supply. A high cortisol level over time is thought to lead to problems in metabolic, immune and cardiovascular systems.  Excess or fluctuating levels of cortisol affect the rate at which the body produces serotonin, which is a mood enhancing neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins and dopamine affect mood, and subsequently, the way we think and feel about our world.

by Hartwig HKD/flicker Creative Commons

by Hartwig HKD/flickr
Creative Commons

Approximately 19 million Americans suffer from depression. In one’s life, this condition affects between 10 and 25% of women and 5 and 12% of men.  In this fast paced modern society, symptoms of depression are as frequent as the common cold. Research is beginning to explain how personality traits can change nature’s biology, and at times has a hazardous effect on bodies and minds.  On days when people reported happy mood states less cortisol was produced compared to days when gloomy mood states were reported.

Scientists are stating that being better organized leads to being less distressed and that being less distressed will cause less production of daily cortisol. The healthy psychology relationship is that people can learn ways to become more organized, which leads to a decrease in anxiety and less production of the physically damaging cortisol.

Neurons, the Wiring of the Brain and Psychology

There are between 10 and 100 billion neurons in the brain that receive messages or nerve impulses at speeds of 1/5000 of a second. The substances that transmit these messages are called neurotransmitters. It is the speed of communication on a neurological level that enables people to respond quickly to various situations. Serotonin is often referred to as the happiness hormone, even though it is not a hormone. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, that is found in the spaces between the neurons (synapses) in the brain. Serotonin’s role in a healthy functioning central nervous system is to regulate vital functions such as sleep, sex drive, and appetite. These are the areas of living that may be disturbed when a person suffers from symptoms of depression.

On a psychological level, there are some depressed people who have demonstrated low levels of serotonin, and it is believed that these lowered levels are associated with clinical depression. Scientists are attempting to determine exactly how this happens, but low serotonin levels form the basis of why most modern anti-depressants are prescribed. Studies have also revealed that almost half of depressed patients who were tested had unusual cortisol levels in their bloodstream. While it is inevitable that prolonged stress can give rise to bouts of depression, these conclusions suggest that there could be a physiological relationship between serotonin, cortisol levels and anxiety and depression.

What Are The Central Nervous System Disorders?

Physical Diseases that are linked to a weakened immune system

Persistent Pain
Digestive disorders
Poor wound healing
Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia
Asthma and other respiratory disorders
Chronic fever, diarrhea, and swollen lymph glands
Two or more colds/flu’s a year with slow recovery

 How to Achieve Health for the Central Nervous System and Prevent Illness
  1. Anxiety Reduction: Stress produces a biochemical reaction and the overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline, thereby, lowering the immune system’s ability to fight off physical illness. This process explains why the common cold takes hold during difficult times. The weakened immune system simply does not have the strength to fight off infections. Find ways to reduce stress. Listen to music, go for a walk, practice relaxation techniques, or find someone to talk to about the anxiety to discover a personal way to reduce stress.
  2. Learn to Become More Organized: Studies show that being organized decreases anxiety levels and reduces the high cortisol levels that reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off infection. Take the time to plan your day.
  3. Physical Exercise: Regular gentle exercise, like walking, help protect the immune system by encouraging the organic killer cells to eliminate bacteria and viruses in their tracks.  People become less physically active with age, and those over the age of 55 may benefit the most from physical exercise. A walk refreshes the immune system by reducing anxiety and assists in restoring the antioxidants, thereby, protecting people from disease.
  4. Get Adequate Sleep: The body needs rest to remain balance. Sometimes sleep is the best medicine especially when trying to fight off a cold or the flu. Learn Relaxations Methods. Develop a routine to prepare yourself to calm down for a restful nights sleep. This “wind down” time should be at least one hour.
  5. Hand Washing: A powerful and fundamental behavior that fights germs. Use soap and water and wash vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds.
  6. Maintain A Healthy Diet: Foods that are eaten have a direct influence on the immune system.  Deficiencies can impair the ability to fight off infection. All fats weaken the immune system because they confuse white blood cells and impair recognition of foreign foes. Antioxidants attack the pure causes of illness such as depression and the aging process. Tissues and organs decay through oxidation, thereby, causing common diseases. Antioxidants restore the organs cells and assist with stability by slowing down the oxidation process. This fix is straightforward; eat more fruits, vegetables, oats, grains, legumes, nuts, berries, and mushrooms. Buy some organic produce. Try a taste test, buy one organic apple and compare with a modern day apple. (The nutrients and pesticide levels are different) If fast food is a must, choose healthy fast food menu items. Pay attention to calorie intake. Consume less fat.

In conclusion, people can consciously or unconsciously choose to live a stressful life. The happy news is that we are in charge of these decisions. Changes in habits and routines can be accomplished whenever there is a genuine desire to live a healthy life. I encourage everyone to try and take on this enormous challenge one day at a time because living a healthy lifestyle even if it is only for one day, is better than none. The goal, of course, is to build on that healthy lifestyle from one day to many days, then to months and ultimately to years. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle  is our power and control over developing a chronic disease, and this is how health psychology meets the central nervous system.  This is good news. Health Psychology for Everyday Lifethe book.

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© Dr. Cheryl MacDonald

video of Health Psychology and Therapy

Health Psychology

Cheryl Ann MacDonald, Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego

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Cover Image: canstockphoto|nerthuz

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Health Coach. How To Take Care of Your Immune System

How to Take Care of Your Immune System, So It Can Take Care of You