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

11 Mar
A sky dive adrenaline rush, a healthy response

A sky dive adrenaline rush, part of a healthy stress response. Photo source: Flickr User Dave Scriven.

In The Make-Up of a Stress Response in M.E / C.F.S Part I I talked about some of the biochemical changes that go on in your body when the amygdala, deep in your subconscious brain, sounds the alarm triggering the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response to kick in. Underlying all the changes is your body’s production of stress hormones. These hormones provide the power and fire your body needs to respond to the threatening situation, be it the tiger or the looming work deadline.


When the amygdala sends the signal, your adrenal glands, located just above your kidneys, release a surge of hormones, including ADRENALINE and CORTISOL.

These two hormones do many things. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies ready for flight or fight.  Meanwhile, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream and crucially curbs the parasympathetic nervous system (the body functions nonessential in a fight or flight scenario such as digestion, reproduction and the immune system) in order to divert energy to the emergency. Cortisol also increases the availability of substances that repair tissues and sends signals to the area of your brain that controls fear, mood and motivation. Thus adrenaline and cortisol play a key role in the stress response biochemical changes.

In a body with a healthy nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol are only produced at times of crisis; when there is an actual threat that demands and requires the full blown stress response. At such times the hormones will be used up and burnt off through fight or flight.

Faced with a tiger, you need adrenaline and cortisol to take flight and escape. Photo source: Flickr User Doug Wheller

Faced with a tiger, you need adrenaline and cortisol to take flight and escape. Photo source: Flickr User           Doug Wheller


We know that the amygdala perceives whatever is in our thoughts, be it in our conscious or subconscious brain, as happening to us right now.

Just thinking about going shopping can trigger a stress response in ME / CFS. Photo source: Flickr User Shlomi Fish.

Just thinking about going shopping can trigger a stress response in ME / CFS. Photo source: Flickr User Shlomi Fish.

Imagine this picture: I’m sat on my sofa considering going to the shops and how I might feel having done so. If I dwell on the negative side effects of such an outing ‘oh I might be really fatigued and achy tomorrow’, my stress response will kick. But as I’m sat on my sofa, not fighting a tiger or racing against the clock in an exam or work deadline, my body will not use up the stress hormones that are produced. And this my friends is where the problem lies. This is where the horrible, debilitating myalgia pain that so many of us suffer from comes in.


When adrenaline and cortisol are not burnt off through use in fight or flight, they form a waste product called LACTIC ACID. This forms in our muscles and causes the myalgia pain. As pain is an adverse consequence, it reinforces the validity of the stress response for that situation (going to the shops and how I would feel in doing so), my brain will remember this association, meaning that the next time I go to or, think about going to, the shops, I’ll suffer the same exacerbation of symptoms. So it’s one BIG UNHAPPY PERPETUAL  STRESS CIRCLE,  a CATCH-22.


What makes it worse though is that, due to  a range of factors, the amygdala becomes hyper-reactive and overstimulates the body in M.E. / C.F.S. Consequentially a stress response becomes the conditioned response (i.e. habitual) for a nervous system with M.E. / C.F.S. This ‘conditioning’ happens entirely subconsciously without the sufferer knowing. So my automatic response to the suggestion of going to the shops is that it will make me feel bad and so cue stress response. As this happens subconsciously I don’t know it’s happening. Going back to the hormones, this means that our adrenal glands are literally working overtime and beyond our basic control, constantly producing adrenaline and cortisol in answer to the amygdala’s alarm which is, falsely, but constantly being sounded.

The above is a fairly simplistic analysis of the role of the stress hormones in M.E./C.F.S. It is my interpretation and not meant by any means to be exhaustive (there is loads more to say I could write for days!) nor is it medical advice. That aside, I think it is clear what a huge role these hormones play and that a possible solution to M.E. / C.F.S is to break that conditioned stress response. To do this we have to bring the subconscious thought into the conscious and create new positive associative memories to form new conditioned responses hence the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’. That is the key. But surprise surprise it is not as simple as it sounds and to save this blog post becoming encyclopedic in length I shall save that for another day.

READ MORE about the workings of the amygdala in my post: The Brain’s Panic Button: the Amygdala at work in M.E / C.F.S

You might also enjoy my post The Make-Up of a Stress Response in M.E / C.F.S Part I


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


  1. Lost luggage and lost health….body start behaving now….please? | my journey thru M.E. - July 8, 2013

    […] cleanse my mind of all these thoughts. Write it down to acknowledge it and then forget and move on. Stress and worry exacerbates ME/CFS, we all know […]

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

    […] I’ve written numerous times about the cause and effect relationship of stress on ME/CFS. So I won’t go into lots of detail again now. Suffice to say that ME/CFS is a neurological disorder in which our stress response essentially becomes automated and permanently on. Every little thing (from washing our hair, to going shopping, to talking to friends etc) is seen as a threat by our poor ME/CFS addled bodies. Living in perpetual stress response is highly damaging to our bodies and results in the myriad of ME/CFS symptoms. I find this stuff fascinating. For me, it was the light bulb moment about my illness. It gave clarity where nothing else made sense. But as I say, I’ve written about it before, so won’t bore you with it 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 symptoms. […]

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