Sympathomedullary Pathway

We all know what stress feels like. We might even know which things are sure to trigger a stress response in us. However, do you know that your body has a built-in system called the Sympathomedullary Pathway for handling acute stress? 

Sympathomedullary Pathway Sympathomedullary Pathway

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Table of contents

    Sympathomedullary Pathway, Sensitivity banner providing sensitivity warning for the topic, StudySmarter

    • We will kickstart your learning with the Sympathomedullarly pathway definition and the different Sympathomedullarly pathway stages we experience when encountering stressful stressors.
    • What kind of diagram is the Sympathomedullary Pathway?
    • Finally, we will look at the evidence for the Sympathomedullary Pathway and evaluate the Sympathomedullary Pathway.

    Sympathomedullary Pathway: Definition

    The Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM) is the body’s system for responding to acute stress (short-term stress).

    You have an exam, but you woke up late, and after you finally get onto the bus, it gets stuck in a traffic jam.

    The SAM responds rapidly to stressors, meaning a person can react quickly if they come under a threat. SAM was essential for our ancestors, who had to respond quickly in life-threatening situations such as coming across a lion.

    Sympathomedullary Pathway stressed woman at computer StudySmarterFig. 1 - Long term exposure to stress can cause illnesses.

    Sympathomedullary Pathway Stages

    In a stressful situation, the brain activates the fight or flight response via the SAM. Let’s have a look at the stages of this stress response system:

    1. The hypothalamus (part of the brain in charge of the stress response) activates if a situation is stressful.

    2. The autonomic nervous system (regulates physiological processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion), which includes the sympathetic nervous system, is aroused, and heart rate and blood pressure increase.

    3. The sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal medulla (located inside the adrenal cortex, in the centre of an adrenal gland) to release adrenaline and noradrenaline.

    Adrenaline effects: adrenaline boosts the supply of oxygen and sugar to help the body respond to the stressor quickly and stops non-emergency processes, such as digestion.

    Noradrenaline effects: Noradrenaline raises physiological arousal, preparing the body for ‘fight or flight’.

    4. Adrenaline and noradrenaline activate the fight or flight response.

    The fight or flight response is when you either stay and deal with a threat (fight) or run away (flight).

    5. After the threat, the parasympathetic nervous system returns the body to a relaxed state. So, the sympathetic pathway is no longer overworking.

    SAM Pathway Diagram

    The SAM pathway diagram illustrates the Sympathomedullary Pathway stages.

    SAM Pathway Diagram
    1. Encounter stressors.
    2. The hypothalamus is activated.
    3. The hypothalamus triggers the sympathetic nervous system.
    4. Increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system causes the adrenal medulla to increase its activity.
    5. The adrenal medulla releases adrenaline and noradrenaline, facilitating the fight or flight response.
    6. The parasympathetic nervous system combats this and returns to a relaxed state.

    The SAM Pathway is an adaptive stress management response. In moderate amounts, stress is useful - even essential! Stress helps us to adapt to our surroundings and new things. Stress can be lifesaving. Without the SAM Pathway, our bodies wouldn’t react to threats with the energy we need to either face a threat or flee to safety.

    Built within the SAM process is a return to stasis or a resting level of calm. However, an overactive SAM can disastrously affect our bodies and mental well-being. Stress can provoke myriad physical symptoms and illnesses.

    The muscle tension we need to act during stressful situations can lead to body aches and tension or migraine headaches during prolonged and intense stress.

    An overactive SAM can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or emphysema.

    When our bodies are healthy, they can handle the extra energy required to breathe sufficiently during heightened states of arousal. However, increased respiration can weaken our system when it is prolonged.

    Sympathomedullary Pathway doctor with EEG read out stethoscopes and medication StudySmarterFig. 2 - Overactivation of the SAM pathway can adversely affect our health, especially concerning the heart.

    Too much stress can even increase our chances of heart disease and hypertension. A heightened state of arousal causes our heart rate to increase and makes our heart beat harder because it causes our blood vessels to dilate to allow increased blood flow.

    Stress hormones, like cortisol, are responsible for these physical responses.

    Too much cortisol in the bloodstream carries its own host of consequences. It can produce psychological effects, like anxiety or depression.

    Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes our bodies to release stored glucose resulting in physical effects like weight gain, increased blood pressure, and even Type 2 Diabetes.

    Cortisol also increases the release of gastric acid to nourish our cells and help our bodies absorb the nutrients needed for fast action. Too much of this can cause intestinal problems like indigestion, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, or vomiting.

    Evidence for Sympathomedullary Pathway

    Taylor et al. (2000) found that acute stress produces the fight or flight response in men but the tend-to-befriend response in women.

    The tend-to-befriend response involves the protection of offspring (tend) and reaching out to the social network for help and support (befriend). The response occurs because women produce more oxytocin, a chemical that promotes relaxation and nurturing.

    Also, female stress responses that increased the survival of offspring were more likely to have been passed on through natural selection. It seems there are gender differences in how people respond to acute stressors.

    Age also affects a person’s physiological response to stress. McCarty (1981) subjected rats of various ages to one minute of electric shocks to the feet (acute stressor); before the electric shocks, their blood plasma levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline were the same. After the electric shocks, the older rats had lower levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline than the younger rats.

    The finding implies older animals have diminished responsiveness of the Sympathomedullary pathway, which leads to reduced capacity to adjust to stressful situations.

    Horwatt et al. (1988) found that if animals are exposed to the same stressful stimulus every day for weeks, several adaptive changes occur in the SAM. If these animals are then exposed to a new stressful situation, they display an exaggerated SAM response compared to animals without this conditioning. The finding suggests that acute stress responses develop differently according to previous stress experiences.

    Evaluating Sympathomedullary Pathway

    It seems there are gender differences in how people respond to acute stressors. Thus, the acute stress response is different for each person; we should not assume everyone will react in the same way physiologically. The fight-or-flight response may be a male-centric (focused or centred on men) viewpoint.

    Lots of research into the acute stress response has focused on animals. Humans are physiologically different; therefore, animal responses to acute stress and human responses are incomparable, so it raises the question of whether researchers should extrapolate results from animals to humans.

    Lazarus (1999) argued that a physiological account alone could not explain how people respond to stressors. How we perceive the potential stressor (the demands of the stressor and our ability to cope with it) also determines our response.

    Further evidence of this arises from Mason (1975), who measured the adrenaline levels produced by different people under the same stressors. The same stressors elicited different adrenaline levels depending on how people interpreted the stress.

    Speisman et al. (1964) provided evidence for this argument. The researchers asked students to watch a gruesome medical procedure while measuring their heart rates. When the video became traumatic for the students to watch, their heart rates would increase, indicating the stress response. However, their heart rates decreased if they interpreted the procedure as a voluntary and joyful rite of passage, which researchers suggested at the start of the study.

    Sympathomedullary Pathway - Key takeaways

    • The Sympathomedullary pathway (SAM) is the body’s pathway for dealing with acute stress.

    • The SAM activates the fight or flight response via the sympathetic nervous system. After the threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system returns the body to a balanced state.

    • There are gender differences in the way people respond to acute stress. Females tend to produce the tend-to-befriend response when faced with acute stress. The fight or flight response can be an example of male-dominated psychology.

    • An overactive SAM can result in too much cortisol in the blood, which can cause devastating effects on physical and mental health.

    • Research shows that the same stressors produce different adrenaline/cortisol levels, depending on how people interpret the stress.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
    2. Fig. 2 - Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sympathomedullary Pathway

    What are the two stress pathways?

    The two stress pathways are the Sympathomedullary pathway and the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. The Sympathomedullary pathway responds to acute stress, and the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system responds to chronic stress.

    What are the three stress hormones?

    Examples of three stress hormones are adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The adrenal medulla secretes adrenaline and noradrenaline through the Sympathomedullary pathway. And the adrenal cortex secretes cortisol through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system.

    What does the SAM system do?

    The SAM system is how the brain directs the body to respond to acute stress via the sympathetic nervous system.

    What is SAM and HPA?

    SAM is the Sympathomedullary pathway, and HPA is the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system.

    What does the sympathomedullary pathway mean?

    The Sympathomedullary pathway (SAM) is the body’s system for responding to acute stress.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What did Horwatt et al. (1988) show acute stress responses? Pick one.

    Which part of the autonomic nervous system increases arousal in a situation of threat?

    The tend-to-befriend response is associated with which chemical?

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