The Stress Response and Your Health

The Stress Response and How It Impacts Your Health

Understanding the stress response

The stress response is a great way of your body protecting itself from impending danger.  It allows you to deal with a potentially life threatening situation. But long term emotional stress can make you ill. Let's look at the relationship between emotions and health.

There are 3 basic  ways to do this; run away, fight your attacker, or remain unnoticed. These are called the fight, flight or freeze responses. When you actively use any of these 3 responses, your body returns to a normal state of homeostasis - where all the chemical processes are working in the correct balance with each other. 

Unfortunately in our modern society we put frequently put ourselves under duress.  Common situations which can activate the stress response include distressing emotions, constant busyness, challenging relationships, and overthinking situations.

Imagine that you are in a constant state of stress; the short term physical changes designed to help you in an acute situation remain actively switched on. They do not reset, and homeostasis is not restored. Instead you are left with physical effects such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. This will eventually create a multitude of problems for your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Let's take a moment to look at how the stress response works: It is controlled by the autonomic nervous system.  This controls unconscious physical processes including heart rate, digestive function, respiratory rate, and vascular response.  The autonomic nervous system is divided into 2 main components: The sympathetic nervous system activates physiological changes in response to a perceived threat. It's opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, restores the body back to homeostasis following a stress trigger.

Some effects of the acute stress response can be seen here:The stress response and health

The stress response has these physiological effects

  • Increases heart rate and respiration
  • Vascular constriction in many areas of body
  • Inhibits the digestive function of stomach and upper-intestine
  • Dilation of blood vessels in muscles
  • Inhibits salivation and lacrimal gland function
  • Relaxes bladder
  • Produces shaking
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Feelings of anxiety & fear
  • Cognitive effects - perception & processing


  • Increases blood flow to the muscles, by diverting it from elsewhere in the body
  • Provide extra energy through increased heart rate, respiration, and raising of blood sugar levels
  • Increase muscle tension for extra speed and strength
  • Focus the mind and body on self preservation

Long Term Effects on Health

If the stress response is switched on for a prolonged period of time, it can begin to produce undesired effects on your physical health which may include:

  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Hypertension
  • Adrenal & metabolic dysfunction
  • Headaches
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Muscle pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Heightened emotional reactivity
  • Inflammatory disorders

Reducing the Stress Response

There are 3 essential components to decreasing the effects of stress:

  • Reduce the frequency that the stress response is being activated; decrease sympathetic nervous activity
  • Increase your awareness of potential triggers and learn how to deal with them effectively
  • Increase activities which will activate the parasympathetic nervous system

Here are a few ways to decrease stress:

1. Changing perception of external events so that they no longer appear threatening, thus reducing the reaction to stress

2. Reducing or avoiding exposure to stress, where appropriate. This requires being able to accurately identify the cause of stress, which can be difficult in some instances. eg If you have grown up in a family where stress constantly present, you may have a decreased ability to recognise it in your life now. 

3. Increasing activities which will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can be any form of relaxation;  meditation, gardening, yoga, listening to calming music.

4. Integrate healthy, life affirming practices into your life: reduce time spent with emotionally draining people or activities, begin exercising, eating healthy foods, and cutting down on toxins such as smoking and alcohol intake.

5. Release the physical effects of stress in the body. If you have experienced a challenging or traumatic situation, there is a possibility that you may still be experiencing the physical effects of this. These can range from ongoing muscular tension to post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Embrace self-empowerment: Knowledge can help you to lead a healthier life, reduce existing symptoms, and create a healthier, happier you.

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