The physiological impact of stress

Experiencing an everyday stressful situation triggers a very distinct physiological response – heart rate and breathing increase, the mind becomes more alert, and your body tenses up. This is an ancient response to get your body ready to fight or flight. Of course, it is less likely that you would have to fight or flee in our current society, but the response is very similar. This mechanism that was developed to prepare you to survive is often triggered chronically at a low level due to frequent situations in everyday life.

This is a very biological and chemical process that instantly activates the nervous system and releases hormones throughout the entire body. Increased heart-rate/blood pressure prepares muscles and vital organs by supplying energy and oxygen. Breathing rate increases to prepare lungs to be able to take up more oxygen that in turn can increase the alertness of your brain. Senses become sharper and sugar becomes more available in your body as it is diverted to your blood. If the stress then is sustained for a longer period or constantly triggered, a secondary hormone, cortisol, is released to keep your body in a “revved up” state. 

The biological response to mobilize energy and prepare your body for action is going to have negative consequences if it is sustained for too long. It can lead to an increased probability of heart disease and will stimulate fat tissue to grow to store more energy. Current research indicates that chronic stress and high levels of cortisol are a direct contributor to weight gain and obesity by stimulating increased eating and decreased sleep and exercise.  

One of the most efficient ways to counteract this response is to engage in physical activity. Even movement as simple as a short brisk walk has been shown to help significantly reduce the negative effects of a stress response. Techniques to learn how to counter the stress response as meditation, yoga, and focused breathing/movements also have a direct effect on your body’s ability to return to a more relaxed state.

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