Understanding Your Body’s Stress Response [Plus 7 Ways to Destress]

Ever felt the need for answers? Like your head is filled with cotton wool and you end up going round and round, with no final solution? It’s because certainty is one of our basic human needs, and right now we are living in very uncertain times. Uncertainty can lead to chronic stress, which can in-turn weaken your immune system.

Factors that impact our stress response include uncertainty, worry and negative thinking.  Worrying about what’s going to happen is natural. If we don’t get an answer, we’ll keep on looking. Our brains crave certainty. Which can result in perpetual checking of your mobile phone or internet. Adding to the stress, especially when we are presented with draconian measures from the government and media.

What’s more, the hysteria that’s being felt all over the world right now layers on top of our own anxiety. The question is: how do you slow down, and keep calm in times of acute or ongoing stress?

The first step is to understand your body’s stress response. So that you can alter your behaviours to produce a sense of ease and calm. In this article we’ll discuss your bodies stress response and choices that you can make to allow you to think clearly again.

What’s the Definition of Stress?

When the demands of life exceed your resources, you’re said to be under stress. Stress can also be described as mental, emotional or physical tension. Contrary to popular opinion, stress isn’t always harmful – some forms of stress, like exercising, are healthy.

Healthy stress is known as eustress.

57% of people feel paralysed when they’re stressed, while 43% state that stress invigorates them. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.

Stress is when your fight-or-flight (parasympathetic nervous system) is activated. Your body is then flooded with the hormones of action – cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.

When you’re stressed out, your conscious brain responses are almost switched off. In favour of instant automatic responses. At the same time, your digestive and immune system are put on hold. 

Too much cortisol can raise your blood sugar levels, which is bad news for diabetics, or those with metabolic syndrome. Suffice it to say, prolonged chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body.

Stress Exacerbates Underlying Health Problems

It’s never been more important to reduce stress by practising healthy coping mechanisms, and removing yourself from stressful situations.

Underlying conditions like diabeteshigh blood pressure and obesity can become worse if a person is stressed out.

In fact, stress in and of itself is a risk factor for heart disease.

Does Stress Weaken the Immune System?

In short, yes!  Stress negatively impacts your immune system.

Your immune system is made up of billions of tiny cells that travel through your bloodstream into all organs of your body, looking for foreign invaders. When the stress response is activated, digestive activity stops and your heart rate increases.

Stress switches your body from rest, repair and digest mode (the parasympathetic nervous system), to the fight-or-flight response (the sympathetic nervous system). Where energy is taken from the body’s internal organs and sent to the extremities for an emergency response. While hormones like cortisol are up-regulated.

Short bursts of cortisol can stimulate your immune system. While prolonged stress, also known as chronic stress, can weaken the immune system due to producing high levels of inflammation. Furthermore, the increased heart rate, from the stress response can increase blood cholesterol levels according to the NHS.

3 Stages of the Stress Response

There are three key stages of the stress response that you need to know about. Alarm, resistance and exhaustion, as described below:

• Alarm Stage – Heart beats faster, sending blood to your arms and legs, ready for action.

• Resistance Stage – Reduced sense of urgency, silent alert.

• Exhaustion Stage – Too much stress can lead to exhaustion. At this phase, your immune system can become weakened.

Chronic stress has been linked to lifestyle illnesses like depression, diabetes and heart disease, as well as a risk for viral infections

10 Physical Symptoms of Stress

Many people are complaining that they can’t sleep right now, with headaches and a lack of appetite generally cited. Others are saying that they feel like they’re stuck to their bed, unable to get up. These are all symptoms of chronic stress.

• Tension headaches

• Fatigue

• Upset stomach

• Lack of libido

• Insomnia

• Aches and pains

• Agitation

• Low self-esteem

• Chest pain or irregular heartbeat

• Clenched jaw or teeth grinding

How Emotions Change When You’re Feeling Stressed

Emotional stress can lead to feelings of worry, the inability to focus, poor judgement and negativity. This can result in procrastination or consuming alcohol to unwind. These responses are understandable, but not helpful and will self perpetuate.

Fear and uncertainty are two of the most common causes of emotional stress.

Right now, we’re facing a global pandemic that’s producing a lot of fear and uncertainty, in turn this is creating a lot of stress. Your ability to deal with stress will alter depending on how you view (or frame) the world.

7 Natural Ways to De-stress

Break the addictive cycle of chronic stress by following these seven natural ways to de-stress.

• Drink at least 8 glasses of pure water every day

• Practice deep diaphragmatic breathing

• Spend time in nature, or bring nature into your home

• Unplug from social media (and your phone in general) for several hours each day

• Set healthy boundaries

• Create healthy bedtime and morning routines

• Exercise every day (go for a run or use a home workout app)

Final Thoughts

It’s never been more important to reduce stress by practising healthy coping mechanisms, and removing yourself from stressful situations.

We’re living in uncertain times, but there is a lot we can do to take charge of the situation.

Understanding the body’s stress response will allow you to know if you are under stress. In turn, you can then do some breathing exercises or go for a walk to unwind.

Setting boundaries and creating routines also go a long way to restoring some form of normality, and reducing stress.