Stress often is accompanied by an array of physical reactions such as an increased heart rate, a sense of muscle tension in the body or butterflies in the stomach. When the brain perceives a situation as threatening or unsafe, our stress response kicks up our level of mental alertness and physical readiness, so we can do what we need to take action or get out of harm’s way. The body’s stress response can also give you the quick burst of heightened alertness and energy you need to perform your best. So it’s true that in certain situations a degree of stress can be useful. When you get stressed, a chain reaction of events is activated in your body. This acute stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, gets the body ready to deal with the emergency.
Two stress response routes
The body’s response to stress occurs through two routes: the ‘fast route’ and the ‘slow route’. The fast route is via the autonomous nervous system which mainly controls the way in which the internal organs function. During this process, the body releases two hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The slow route is through the brain. During this process, a stress hormone called cortisol is released.
When the body releases these hormones:
- Your blood pressure rises, your heart beats faster and your respiratory rate increases. This is all part of getting the body ready to deal with the emergency.
- Oxygen-rich blood goes to your heart, brain and muscles (and to a lesser extent to the other organs)
- Your muscles tighten.
- Your digestion temporarily shuts down so that no unnecessary energy is wasted.
- Your sweat glands become active, causing you to perspire. This is because the body produces more heat when in an elevated state of mental alertness and physical readiness. The body rids itself of this excessive heat through perspiration.
- Your hands get cold and your face goes white. This is because the blood vessels in your skin contract, which cuts off the amount of blood flowing to the skin.
As soon as the emergency situation is over the body returns to normal, allowing both your body and mind to recover. This is necessary because stress puts a lot of strain on the body.
The body’s reaction to chronic stress
Stress is part of life. That is why our body has mechanisms for dealing with stress. Not all stress is negative, and, in fact, stress can give you the energy you need to successfully deal with challenging situations or crises. However, stress is unhealthy when it becomes chronic, in which case the body and mind don’t have any or enough time to recover, causing stress to build up. This can lead to all sorts of problems, both physically, mentally and behaviourally.
The common effects that chronic stress has on the body:
- Shortage of breath
- High blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Muscle pain
- Stomach problems
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Teeth grinding
- Ill health
Sound familiar? Then take action!
Does this sound like you? Do you also have other signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, agitation, indecisiveness, forgetfulness? Do you drink or smoke more than usual? Have you lost interest in sex? If the answer to some of these questions is ‘yes’, then it is important to get help to manage the stress in your life. Don’t wait for a burn-out to overwhelm you. Talk to your GP about stress and see what advice he or she can offer.
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Last updated on October 13, 2016.
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