The Stress Response

Published on 20th December 2018


Stress is the result of perceived excessive demands, overload and overwhelm which can stimulate the fight,flight or freeze response, a primitive response that was intended to ensure safety during survival situations. When however you are constantly under pressure, your body will not be able to maintain homeostasis (a state of ease and balance) and dis-ease can result; negatively affecting your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your health. If you find yourself frequently overwhelmed, it is important to take action and bring your nervous system back into balance.

Since the beginning of time as soon as we become stressed, our body switches into a response known as “fight or flight”.  This is to prepare us to either fight a dangerous situation or do a 100 metre dash from it. The stress activates a release of adrenaline in to our blood stream causing a number of changes in the body.

These include:

The muscles tense ready for action.  It is no surprise that many people feel tension in their neck and shoulders when we instinctively prepare for a fight.  Unfortunately, in modern day life, this tension can stay in our body, as we do nothing to reduce it and remain physically inactive.

The pupils dilate (get bigger) to see further.  In ancient times there was no such thing as street lighting, but today we are bombarded with light, particularly the fluorescent variety, which, when our pupils dilate, may contribute to headaches.

The heart beats harder and faster to pump more blood to the muscles of the legs for that hundred metre dash.  Again, if we were active during the fight or flight response this would not present us with health problems, but invariably we are sedentary leading to rapid heart beat and palpitations.

The breathing becomes rapid and shallow often leading to us feeling more stressed.  When we breathe in shallowly we do not breathe in enough life giving oxygen.  Nor do we breathe out enough carbon dioxide.  Too much carbon dioxide in the blood makes it acidic and the body, especially the brain, cannot function well on acidic blood.  We also do not get enough life giving oxygen into the body.  No wonder we feel tired!

Cholesterol is released from the liver for extra energy.  This is the dirty word of our times. If we were active during our times of stress, we would burn up that excess cholesterol, but again our inactivity leads to the cholesterol clogging up our arteries and causing heart disease.

Blood is diverted from the digestive system to the muscles, causing us to feel nauseous if we have just eaten, or we experience a loss of appetite.  Alternatively we may crave sugary foods from which we can get instant energy, because our saliva contains enzymes that digest the sugars.  This, however, creates huge imbalances in our blood sugar levels and consequently mood swings.  Stress can literally upset our stomach leading to ulcers, irritable bowel, constipation, diarrhoea and indigestion.

Because the body is so busy coping with stress, immunity is suppressed.  Have you ever noticed how you get more run down when stressed, perhaps getting mouth ulcers, cold sores, spots and colds.

Understanding these responses helps us comprehend why as therapists our clients feel the way they do when stressed; the sleeplessness (adrenaline buzzing around the body keeps us awake), the indigestion, the headaches, the tension, the mood swings, the inability to concentrate, the wanting to withdraw, the tearfulness, the agitation........

On our anatomy and physiology courses we look at this stress response in more detail. The neurological system can be purchased here as a stand alone unit. 


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