Stress Response Hyperstimulation

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated May 19, 2021

hyperstimulation

Many anxiety disorder sufferers become concerned and confused about why anxiety can cause so many symptoms, and especially when they don’t feel anxious or stressed

Many also travel to doctor after doctor and have test after medical test done in the hopes of discovering the cause of their symptoms.

This ongoing quest for answers occurs because many anxiety disorder sufferers don’t understand anxiety, how it affects the body, how it can cause hyperstimulation, and how hyperstimulation can cause the many odd and bizarre symptoms even though medical tests have all come back normal.

This article will give you a brief overview of hyperstimulation and its connection with anxiety, anxiety disorder, and the many anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety And The Stress Response

Anxiety can be defined as:

  • A feeling of worry, unease, apprehension, or nervousness about an imminent event or future situation with an uncertain outcome.
  • Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear or danger or misfortune.[1]
  • A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from anticipation of a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation, often impairing physical and psychological functioning.

Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior. Apprehension can be defined as:

  • Anxiety/fear that something bad or unpleasant will happen.[1]

Fear - that something bad or unpleasant will happen – drives anxiety!

The moment we become afraid (that something bad or unpleasant will happen), the body sets off a stress response that secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it. This survival reaction is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).[2][3][4][5]

stress response hyperstimulation

The stress response gives us a boost in energy and resources when in danger because of the many changes the stress response brings about. Therefore, anxiety activates the stress response, and the stress response causes body-wide changes…and a lot of them. For more detailed information, visit our “Stress Response” page.

Stress responses are our ally when in danger due to the increased ability we have to fight or flee. But because of the many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes brought about by the stress response, stress responses stress the body – they push the body beyond its natural equilibrium. To maintain a healthy state of equilibrium, the body needs sufficient time to recover after a stress response ends.

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body has sufficient time to recover from the stress response changes. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, the body doesn't have adequate time to recover, which can cause it to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness.[6][7][8]  We call this state “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants that stimulate the body. Other sources call this state “hyperarousal” or “dysregulation.”

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Hyperstimulation And Anxiety Symptoms

While infrequent stress responses don’t impact the body in any significant manner, hyperstimulation, which chronically stresses the body, can.

You can think of it this way. A vehicle was built to experience normal driving conditions except for instances where you have to floor the accelerator pedal to pass or get out of harm’s way. Pushing the gas pedal to the floor revs the engine (causes the engine to dramatically increase its revolutions, which then converts to higher speed). Short bursts of a highly revved engine are acceptable, as automobile manufacturers build their vehicles with this provision in mind. But always driving with your foot to the floor will cause engine damage as the engine wasn’t designed to endure that sustained level of revolutions.

The body and the stress response function similarly. While sporadic episodes of elevated stress are acceptable and easily tolerated by the body, chronic stress, such as that caused by hyperstimulation, will eventually cause anomalies in how the body functions. These anomalies can present symptoms.

hyperstimulation

For example, a body that becomes hyperstimulated can engage all of the changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated. This chronic activation can cause the associated systems, organs, and glands that are affected by the stress response to become overly used and chronically stressed. This chronic stress can cause them to present symptoms of over use, such as:

Elevated blood pressure

The stress response causes blood vessels to constrict so that if one is severed in battle, constricted blood vessels reduce the possibility of bleeding to death. Blood vessels are also constricted to shunt blood away from parts of the body less vital to survival and to parts more important for survival. While blood vessel constriction is beneficial when in real danger, hyperstimulation can cause high blood pressure due to the chronically constricted blood vessels.

Chronic muscle tension and pain

The stress response causes muscles to tighten so that they are more resilient to damage when fighting. This is beneficial when in real danger but chronic muscle tension can lead to chronic muscle stiffness and pain. Fibromyalgia is thought to be caused by chronic stress.

Numbness, tingling, and a variety of odd sensory-based sensations and symptoms

The stress response stimulates the nervous system, which is comprised of specialized cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other via an electrochemical process (the combination of electricity and chemistry). Because of their electrochemical makeup, neurons are particularly sensitive to stimulation.

neuron anatomy

While nervous system excitement is beneficial when in real danger, a chronically stimulated nervous system can create all sorts of nervous system and sensory symptoms,[7][8][9] such as numbness, tingling, zaps, deafness, blurry vision, and a host of others.

Trembling and shaking

Stress hormones are stimulants that stimulate the body. While instant stimulation can be beneficial when in real danger – so that we have the energy and reaction time required to fight or flee – chronic stimulation can cause persistent trembling and shaking. Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience persistent trembling and shaking.

These are just a few of the multitude of symptoms hyperstimulation can cause. In fact, every anxiety symptom is caused by either the stress response or stress-response hyperstimulation (when the body becomes chronically stressed).

Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress

Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. We call them anxiety symptoms because overly apprehensive behavior is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become stressed or chronically stressed and then symptomatic.

We don’t have to be afraid of anxiety symptoms since they are merely symptoms of stress or chronic stress. But, we do need to eliminate the body’s unhealthy level of stress as research has shown that chronic stress can lead to health problems down the road.[10][11][12][13]

If you want more specific information about each symptom, visit our “Anxiety Signs and Symptoms” section and then click on each symptom.

Recovery Support members can visit the “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects” section (in chapter 14) for a detailed look at hyperstimulation, how it affects the body, and how to recover from it. Recovery Support members can also visit the Anxiety Symptoms section (chapter 9) for a more detailed explanation about every anxiety symptom, including how to eliminate them.

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Hyperstimulation and homeostasis

Hyperstimulation doesn’t just affect the systems, organs, and glands affected by the stress response, it can also affect how the body manages itself, which in turn, can also cause symptoms.

For example, to keep the body functioning normally throughout our lifetime, the body uses its eleven organ systems (integumentary, muscular, skeletal, nervous, circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine, urinary/excretory, reproductive, and digestive) to check and balance itself in an effort to maintain a relatively constant and stable state of internal balance (equilibrium). This process is called Homeostasis: a process that living things use to maintain stable conditions necessary for survival actively.[14][15]

These systems work together to control body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, PH balance, CO2 balance, and so on. These systems manage the body automatically in spite of the ever-changing internal and external conditions.

As long as we live a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet, keeping stress to a minimum, getting regular exercise, and getting sufficient rest and good sleep, the body does an excellent job of maintaining itself, for the most part, all by itself.

When the body is healthy and functioning normally, the homeostatic process typically does such a good job of keeping all levels and systems in balance and within a healthy range that we don’t notice the multitude of moment by moment changes and adjustments. This seamless homeostasis process occurs because a healthy body is relatively easy to keep within a healthy balance.

For instance, blood sugar levels are easy to keep within a healthy range when the body is functioning normally and demand for blood sugar is normal. Moreover, the body’s temperature is effortlessly regulated when the internal and external environments are kept within normal ranges. PH balance, heart rate, blood pressure, and so on are easily managed when they are all kept within normal ranges. However, hyperstimulation can change all of that.

Hyperstimulation can tax the homeostatic process because the body has to work harder to maintain a healthy balance. Additionally, hyperstimulation can cause dysregulation within each system, thereby making the entire homeostatic process much more difficult. This difficulty can lead to errors in homeostatic management, which can cause under and over adjustments leading to the appearance of “out of the blue” symptoms.

Involuntary anxiety attacks are an example of where a homeostatic process caused an involuntary surge of stress hormones sufficient to create a high degree anxiety attack.

Consequently, hyperstimulation can wreak havoc on the homeostatic process. As the degree of hyperstimulation increases, so can an increase in homeostatic misbehavior and symptoms 

We explain this in more detail in the “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects” section in chapter 14 in the Recovery Support area.

When you combine all of the ways hyperstimulation affects the body, the nervous system, and the homeostatic process, it’s little wonder anxiety-caused hyperstimulation can cause so many odd, bizarre, and out-of-the-blue symptoms.

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Hyperstimulation summary

The chronic activation of the stress response chronically stresses all of the systems, organs, and glands that are affected by the stress response, as well as how the body manages itself. This combination of factors can cause symptoms of any type, number, duration, intensity, frequency, and at any time. As long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated, it can act erratically and exhibit a wide range of symptoms.

how hyperstimulation affects the body

Hyperstimulation can cause a wide range of anxiety symptoms that can affect almost every part of the body.

Fortunately, hyperstimulation and its adverse effects can be eliminated! Knowing this information and how to overcome hyperstimulation should be an important part of every anxiety disorder sufferer’s recovery skillset.

We’ve only touched the surface of how hyperstimulation can affect the body and the many symptoms it can cause. Again, we explain hyperstimulation in great detail in the Recovery Support area of our website. We also explain how hyperstimulation affects brain function, how it impacts the nervous system, what’s required to recover from hyperstimulation, how long recovery can take, and ways to overcome the many barriers to recovery and lasting success. If you are interested in overcoming anxiety disorder and the effects of hyperstimulation, we encourage you to become a member of our Recovery Support area and begin your meaningful recovery today.

It’s been long known that anxiety and stress cause an increase in activity in the fear center of the brain (the amygdala and other parts of the brain) and a decrease in activity in the executive function parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex and others).

However, this is the first time brain scans have been used to examine how emotion-regulation circuits are changed by anxiety and chronic stress in children.

The takeaway, however, is not that the brain is malfunctioning or damaged in some way due to anxiety, but that the brain is responding the way it’s supposed to when we think we are in danger. This change in brain function is an integral part of the body’s survival mechanism.

We explain this change in brain function in more detail in our “Stress Response” article.

We can remedy this change by behaving calmly instead of anxiously. As we use calming behavior, the executive function parts of the brain increase in activity, and the fear center decreases. Thus, restoring our ability to regulate our emotions.

So, it’s not that we can’t regulate our emotions when we’re anxious, but a matter of learning how so that we can gain more control over our emotions when we are anxious.

Recovery Support members can read the articles “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects,” “The Rational Brain And The Emotional Brain,” and the “Natural Ways To Shift The Body Out Of ‘Emergency Mode’” in chapter 14 for more information about how anxiety changes brain function and how to regain emotional control.

You can read the press release about this research below:

Stanford study finds stronger one-way fear signals in brains of anxious kids

Signals from the brain’s fear center make it more difficult for anxious and stressed children to regulate their emotions, a first-of-its-kind brain scanning study from Stanford shows.

In chronically stressed or anxious children, the brain’s fear center sends signals to the decision-making part of the brain that make it harder to regulate negative emotions, according to new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The findings, which was published April 21 in Biological Psychiatry, come from the first study to use brain scans to examine how emotion-regulation circuits are changed by anxiety and chronic stress in children. The children studied were 10 or 11 years old, a developmental stage when vulnerability to mood-regulation disorders, such as anxiety and depression, becomes entrenched.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the nature of the signals between two parts of the brain: the amygdalae, almond-shaped nerve clusters on the right and left sides of the brain that function as its fear centers; and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in executive functions such as decision making and emotion regulation.



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“The more anxious or stress-reactive an individual is, the stronger the bottom-up signal we observed from the amygdala to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “This indicates that the circuit is being hijacked in more anxious children, and it suggests a common marker underlying these two clinical measures, anxiety and stress reactivity.”

Victor Carrion, MD, a co-author of the study and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, said, “This study shows that the communication between our emotional centers and our thinking centers becomes less fluid when there is significant stress. You want that connection to be strongly signaling back and forth. But stress and anxiety of a certain level seem to interrupt that process.”

Carrion is the director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program, and is the John A. Turner, MD, Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Lead authorship of the paper is shared by researcher Stacie Warren, PhD, and postdoctoral scholar Yuan Zhang, PhD.

Kids react to images

The study included 45 students in a California community with predominantly low-income residents who often face high levels of adversity. All 45 children had their anxiety levels and stress responses measured using standard behavioral questionnaires. Although their exposure to stress was potentially high, none were diagnosed with mood disorders.

To test how the children’s brains responded as they were trying to regulate negative emotions, the scientists conducted functional MRI scans while the study participants looked at two types of images, neutral and aversive. Neutral images showed pleasant scenes, such as someone taking a walk, whereas aversive images showed potentially distressing scenes, such as a car crash.

The children received instructions about responding to each image. For all the neutral images and half the aversive images, they were asked to look at them and respond to them naturally, rating their emotional state on a numerical scale after seeing each one. They were asked to look at the other half of the aversive images and try to reduce any negative reactions they had by telling themselves a story to make the pictures seem less upsetting — a story such as, “This car crash looks bad, but the people in the vehicles weren’t hurt.” After the kids tried to modify their emotional reaction, they again rated their emotional state on the numerical scale.

As the researchers expected, the children reported less negative emotions after being asked to reappraise their reactions to aversive images.

Using the brain-scan data, the researchers tested the strength and direction of interactions between the amygdala, the fear center, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the reasoning center, while the children viewed the images. Although the children with different levels of anxiety and stress reactivity reported similar reductions in their negative emotions when asked to reappraise the aversive images, their brains were doing different things.

More stress leads to less control of emotional reaction

The more anxious or stressed the child, the stronger the directional signals from the right amygdala to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. No such effects were seen in the reverse direction — that is, there was no increase in signaling from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Higher levels of anxiety were associated with less positive initial reactions to aversive images, less ability to regulate emotional reaction in response to aversive images, and more impulsive reactions during reappraisal of aversive images. Higher stress reactivity was linked with less controlled, more impulsive reactions when reappraising aversive images, suggesting that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is less able to carry out its job.

Not only do the findings reveal how the brain can be changed by anxiety, they also act as a baseline for future studies to test interventions that may help children manage their anxiety and stress responses, the scientists said.

“We need to be more mindful about intervening,” Menon said. “These results show that the brain is not self-correcting in anxious children.”

“Thinking positively is not something that happens automatically,” Carrion said. “In fact, automatically we think negatively. That, evolutionarily, is what produced results. Negative thoughts are automatic thoughts, and positive thoughts need to be practiced and learned.”

The paper’s other Stanford co-authors are former research assistants Katherine Duberg and Sarah-Nicole Bostan; postdoctoral scholar Percy Mistry, PhD; Weidong Cai, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; former postdoctoral scholar Shaozheng Qin, PhD; and former staff researcher Aarthi Padmanabhan, PhD.

This work was completed in partnership with the Ravenswood City, Alum Rock and Orchard school districts and Pure Edge Inc., which provides mindfulness curricula for children, and supported by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, the National Institutes of Health (grants EB022907, NS086085 and MH121069), the Stanford Maternal Child Health Research Institute and the Stanford Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering.

Media Contacts

ERIN DIGITALE
Tel 650-724-9175
digitale@stanford.edu

MARGARITA GALLARDO
Tel 650-723-7897
mjgallardo@stanford.edu

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Hyperstimulation.

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