The science of stress

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The science of stress: what happens to us when we are under constant stress?

Stress is a common experience that affects everyone at some point. It is the body’s natural response to any demand or challenge, whether physical, mental, or emotional. While a certain amount of stress can be beneficial, motivating us to perform better and adapt to new situations, chronic stress can harm our health and well-being. This article explores the science behind stress, its impact on our bodies and minds, and practical strategies for managing stress effectively.

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What Happens to Our Body Under Stress?

When we encounter a stressful situation, our bodies undergo a series of immediate reactions. The “fight-or-flight” response is triggered, activating the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, from the adrenal glands. These hormones prepare the body to either confront or escape the perceived threat.

Physiologically, stress manifests in several ways:

  • Increased heart rate and rapid breathing supply more oxygen to the muscles.
  • Muscles tense up, readying the body for action.
  • Blood pressure rises, and energy is mobilized to respond to the stressor.

These changes are beneficial in the short term, helping us react quickly to danger. However, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to various health problems, including headaches, fatigue, and digestive issues.

Breathing

An increase in breathing rate can result in hyperventilation and panic attacks

Heart Rate

Raised or elevated heart rate and blood pressure which can cause damage to the cardiovascular system over time.

Nerves

Stress can affect the structure of the growing brain.

Muscles

The Muscles tense up mostly in the neck, shoulders and head which can lead to headaches and stiffness.

Digestion

Stress changes the way the blood flows around the body.  It affects the digestive system and eating patterns. We can get cravings to eat high energy food or even lose our appetite. 

Hormones

Stress hormones like cortisol can affect every cell in the body. It can help prime us to deal with fight or flight and can even dampen the immune system. 

Stress response and the body

The stress response involves a complex interplay of the nervous and endocrine systems. When a stressor is perceived, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger a cascade of physiological changes:

  • Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Cortisol raises blood sugar levels and suppresses non-essential functions, such as digestion and immune responses.

While these changes are crucial for immediate survival, chronic activation of the stress response can lead to long-term health issues, including cardiovascular disease, weakened immune function, and mental health disorders.

Effects of stress

Stress affects us on multiple levels—physically, mentally, and behaviorally.

Physical Health

Chronic stress is linked to numerous physical health problems, such as:

  • High blood pressure and heart disease
  • Weakened immune system, making us more susceptible to infections
  • Gastrointestinal issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcers

Mental Health

Long-term stress can take a toll on our mental health, leading to:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

Behavioral Changes

Stress can also influence our behavior, often in negative ways:

  • Changes in appetite, leading to overeating or undereating
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Increased reliance on substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, as coping mechanisms

How Stress Affects Our Ability to Work

Stress can significantly impact our ability to function effectively at work. Cognitive impairments, such as difficulty concentrating and memory problems, can reduce productivity and increase the likelihood of errors. Additionally, stress can lead to interpersonal issues, causing conflicts and reducing collaboration among colleagues.

Working with Stress Better

Effectively managing stress in the workplace involves a combination of strategies:

  • Stress Management Techniques: Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and regular physical activity can help reduce stress levels.
  • Time Management: Prioritising tasks, setting realistic goals, and taking regular breaks can prevent burnout.
  • Support Systems: Seeking support from colleagues, supervisors, or mental health professionals can provide valuable assistance in coping with stress.

Striking a Balance

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is crucial for managing stress. This includes setting boundaries between work and personal time, engaging in hobbies and activities that bring joy, and ensuring adequate rest and relaxation.

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Understanding Triggers

Identifying and understanding the triggers of stress is the first step in managing it effectively. Keeping a stress journal can help you recognise patterns and pinpoint specific stressors. Once identified, strategies such as avoidance, adaptation, and proactive planning can be employed to mitigate their impact.

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Dealing with the Breaking Point

It’s essential to recognise when stress levels have reached a breaking point. Knowing when to step back and seek help is crucial. Professional support from therapists or counsellors can provide valuable guidance, and having a crisis management plan can help you navigate extremely stressful situations.

Daily Habits for Support

  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity boosts mood and reduces anxiety.
  • Healthy Diet: Consuming nutrient-rich foods supports overall health.
  • Adequate Sleep: To rejuvenate the body and mind, aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.

Mindfulness Practices

  • Meditation: Practicing meditation reduces stress and enhances focus.
  • Gratitude Journaling: Keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for fosters a positive outlook.
  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Engaging in deep breathing exercises quickly lowers stress levels.

Building Resilience

  • Positive Relationships: Surround yourself with supportive people.
  • Continuous Learning: Develop new skills to handle stress better.
  • Goal Setting: Set realistic and achievable goals to maintain motivation and focus.

Conclusion

Managing stress is essential for maintaining physical and mental well-being. While stress is an inevitable part of life, understanding its mechanisms and effects allows us to develop effective strategies for coping. By implementing daily habits, mindfulness practices, and building resilience, we can navigate stressful situations more effectively and improve our overall quality of life. Remember, stress management is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and adjustment. Empower yourself with knowledge and take proactive steps to create a healthier, more balanced life.

References

  1. American Psychological Association (APA)
    • American Psychological Association. (2018). Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved from APA Website
  2. Harvard Health Publishing
    • Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from Harvard Health Website
  3. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
    • National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. Retrieved from NIMH Website
  4. Mayo Clinic
    • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2021). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic Website
  5. Cleveland Clinic
  6. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
    • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2020). Stress. Retrieved from NCCIH Website
  7. HelpGuide
    • Segal, J., Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, R. (2021). Stress Management. HelpGuide. Retrieved from HelpGuide Website
  8. WebMD
    • WebMD Editorial Contributors. (2021). The Physical Effects of Long-Term Stress. Retrieved from WebMD Website
  9. University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMass)
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Karen Green

Karen is a seasoned professional with over 20 years of experience in human resources and business. Her true passion lies in empowering individuals to understand themselves better, uncovering their motivations, and bridging the gap between personal and professional life. Over the years, Karen has collaborated closely with numerous leaders and teams, deriving immense satisfaction from guiding people through personal growth and transformational change, both in their careers and personal lives.

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