The Make-Up of a Stress Response in M.E. / C.F.S Part I

7 Mar
They may look cute here, but if you met a tiger in the street your stress response would kick in. Image Source: Flickr User Keven Law.

They may look cute and cuddly here, but if you met a tiger in the street your stress response would definitely kick in! Image Source: Flickr User Keven Law.

Our bodies are amazingly clever. When faced with a danger or threat, the Amygdala sounds the alarm and our body’s natural STRESS RESPONSE kicks in. The threat could be a lion or tiger walking towards us, or, as we thankfully don’t encounter many ferocious wild animals in our daily lives in England at least, the threat could be a looming work deadline, an unexpected tax bill or an illness.


There are biochemical changes that occur in our bodies to enable us to efficiently fight the danger or take flight from the danger and to dispatch the threat successfully.

Some of the main things that happen in our bodies in the STRESS RESPONSE are:

  • Sweat – as muscles work hard to deal with the danger they produce heat.
  • Sensitivity to sound – help hear the danger as clearly as possible.
  • Blood flow changes – less goes to primate brain and more to the reptile brain in order to aid vital autonomic processes such as breathing .
  • Digestion slows as energy is redirected from non-essential body systems to muscles in order to enable us to take flight from the danger.
  • Sensitivity to light – help see the danger as clearly as possible.
  • Thirst – extra fluid is directed to muscles to help them work as efficiently as possible in case we need to flee.
  • Breath and heart beat quickens as our lungs and heart receive more energy to help us fight or flee.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means but just this snapshot shows that there is clearly a lot that goes on in our bodies when our stress response kicks in.


The above biochemical changes are fine on a short term basis. We need our bodies to respond in this way in order to protect us from danger and short term they do not present a problem. But if these changes happen too regularly or perpetually they themselves become problematic.  We know that in ME / CFS we can get stuck in stress mode. The Amygdala constantly senses danger and thus we are essentially in a perpetual stress response. Looking at the biochemical changes of a ‘normal’ stress response above, imagine what it must be like when these biochemical changes are essentially continuous; we can quickly see correlation of the above stress response with some of the classic symptoms of ME / CFS.

  • Fatigue –We have stress hormones (much more on this in my next post) constantly cruising through our veins. Being in this state of high alert all the time is tiring and hugely disruptive to our body systems, which causes, yep you guessed it, persistent fatigue.
  • Digestive problems – as a non-essential body system in times of crisis, our digestive organs receive less energy and so cannot function well; over time this results in IBS type symptoms and food intolerances. Our bodies simply do not digest food properly.
  • Thirst – chronic thirst is common in ME / CFS. Our muscles are demanding more fluid in order to sustain energy to fight or flee the perceived danger, so there is a constant ‘I’m thirsty’ signal.
  • Sensitivity to light and sound – our eyes and ears are on high alert which is why light and sound sensitivity is common. For example I can’t handle the radio in the background even whilst trying to have a conversation.
  • Less blood in the frontal lobes of the primate brain means headaches, tension in our neck and head, irritability and brain fog.
  • Sweat – increased perspiration can be a problem for ME / CFS sufferers. Our muscles overheat when working overtime in a stress response and thus we produce more sweat and experience ‘hot flushes’. Night sweats can be attributed to our bodies detoxing the stress hormones which have not been used up as the perceived danger did not use up all the elements of the stress response.
  • Cold extremities and temperature fluctuations – as the sweat cools on our skin we feel cold. Our extremities feel cold when the blood drains from them in order to protect our major organs in response to the stressor.


Sound familiar? I haven’t yet mentioned the myalgia pain that plagues me and so many ME / CFS sufferers. This is was what made me really sit up and take notice of the stress approach to tackling ME / CFS. It just made so much sense. Myalgia is such a biggy for me that it deserves a dedicated post. So I’ll talk about that and the stress hormones mentioned briefly above in my next post.

READ MORE about the brain and the amygdala in my post The Brain’s Panic Button: the Amygdala at Work in ME / CFS.

READ MORE about the role of stress in ME / CFS in my post Stress & ME / CFS: in a Test-Tube.


5 Responses to “The Make-Up of a Stress Response in M.E. / C.F.S Part I”


  1. A few more thoughts on Food Intolerances in ME/CFS | my journey thru M.E. - August 10, 2013

    […] Neurological understanding  shows that the nervous system of an ME/CFS patient is stuck in the stress response mode. This means that all non essential body functions are automatically paused by our brains in order […]

  2. ME/CFS and Personality: A Glimpse Inside My Head | my journey thru M.E. - September 14, 2013

    […] any and every virus doing the rounds. Our bodies become conditioned to the stress. We get stuck in stress response mode. Our bodies constantly think we are being attacked by a tiger. Our non vital bodily functions […]

  3. Now Now Now! | my journey thru M.E. - September 18, 2013

    […] Doing too much in answer to the Now Now Now demons drains me. It exacerbates my physical symptoms. But that is not the whole of it. The urgency of it all is not calming. It is highly and acutely stressful. As I say in the moment the urgency is generally so overwhelming I can’t see through it. It’s very much an unconscious pattern. On the rare occasion I catch myself mid flow it is such a battle with myself to step away, to stop, to pause, to breath deep, that the very act of trying to slow down is stressful. Yep the S word again. Stress Stress Stress… […]

  4. My Journey Thru M.E. Part 2: 2012 Some Ups, More Downs | my journey thru M.E. - December 3, 2014

    […] of the tunnel. I learnt huge amounts about the science behind ME/CFS, neuroplasticity and autonomic stress responses in […]

  5. Not worth it… | my journey thru M.E. - February 3, 2015

    […] again now.  If you want to read more, this post is a good starting point and also see this post on ME/CFS stress response and this post on the role of stress hormones in ME/CFS […]

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