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How Stress Works in the Body

How Stress Works in the Body

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Have you been feeling under pressure? Got too much on your plate? Been burning the candle at both ends? Are you at a breaking point?

We often use these and other phrases to describe a state of stress. But what does stress really mean?

Stress is any type of change or challenge—positive or negative—that causes the mind and body to respond. The body’s response to stress is designed to help us take quick action in the face of danger—or opportunity. 

We all experience stress. In fact, some types of stress are actually good for us. What really matters is our relationship with stress. How we respond to it and manage it can either make or break our physical and mental health. That relationship all starts with understanding how stress works in the body.

What Does Stress Do in the Body?

Overall, the body’s stress response is designed to help us function at our best when confronted with a challenge. When we’re up against a real threat, the stress response can save our lives. That’s why many stress effects are helpful short-term when we can quickly adapt, then return to balance. But long-term, these effects wear on the body and can lead to health issues over time. Here are a few ways stress works in the body: 

Stress releases steroid hormones.

When we perceive a stressful change or challenge, the brain starts to “talk” with the endocrine system. It sends messages through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to release steroid hormones—including cortisol, the “stress hormone.” 

Among many things, cortisol moves glucose (sugar) and fatty acids from the liver into the circulating bloodstream. This gives us a boost in energy so we can respond to the challenge. But when our stressors don’t require any physical activity to overcome (such as replying to a triggering email), this extra sugar and fat aren’t burned. As a result, we can end up with high blood sugar, fatigue, weight gain, and hormone imbalances.  

Stress increases heart rate and blood pressure.

Under short-term stress, stress hormones flood your system to increase your heart rate. In an actual dangerous situation, this is a good thing. A faster-beating heart means better circulation throughout the body and a better chance of surviving a potential threat. After we fight or flee, our heart rate slows and the body returns to a relaxed state (kind of like the calm you feel after an intense workout).

With chronic stress, however, heart rate and blood pressure tend to stay elevated. This wears down the cardiovascular system and could eventually lead to heart disease.

Stress tenses muscles.

When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up as a way to protect us against potential injury and pain. Once the stress passes, our muscles should return to a state of relaxation. With chronic stress, muscles stay contracted in tension, leading to stiffness, chronic pain, and headaches.

Stress shortens breath.

Have you ever felt short of breath after hearing stressful news? For many people, stress can cause rapid, shallow breathing—a reaction meant to help us get away from danger faster. If this change in our breathing habits becomes chronic, it can worsen our stress by making us feel anxious or even triggering a panic or asthma attack.

The Power of the Reset: An Antidote to Stress 

We are meant to live most of our lives in the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state. Stress is meant to be short-lived, with the body responding and falling back into homeostasis once the situation is resolved. 

If that’s the case, why is it so hard for some of us to leave old stress in the past and reset? In our modern world, we deal with non-harmful stressors—challenges or encounters that don’t require a fight or escape. So, even when the stressor is gone, our bodies remain in high-alert mode because we never get the opportunity to release the pent-up energy. Our engines are revved, but there’s nowhere to go. 

After a stressful event (or even a stressful few months) there’s one thing you need to do to help your body return to homeostasis: let it out. Here are a few ways you can do that:

Exercise.

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to release stress because it completes the stress response cycle. When stressed, your heart is racing, you’re breathing faster, and glucose and adrenaline are rushing through your veins. You’re primed to take action. Exercise gives you the outlet your body needs to use this energy and reset. Any cardiovascular exercise will do—from running to dancing to sex and intimacy.

Make some noise.

Screaming into your pillow may feel like something your teenage self would do, but it might not be so childish after all. Studies show that yelling, crying, singing, and laughter are all great ways to release pent-up tension. They give your lungs and heart a chance to expend energy, reset, and relax. If you’re up for feeling a little silly, the yogic breathing practice of Lion’s Breath is a simple way to try it out (without disturbing your housemates).

Rest with intention.

Stress can make us feel exhausted or wired (or both, simultaneously). Either way, learning to bring your body back into a relaxed state with intention can help you reduce the negative effects of stress and grow more resilient to them over time. Try activities like body scans, yin yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. These actively switch your mind and body out of the stress response and into a relaxed state. Use them whenever you feel like your stress is running the show, or as a daily stress-relieving ritual. 

Stress is inevitable, but we can control how well we manage it. Step one is to help your body complete the stress response and return to homeostasis. Step two is to stay one step ahead of stress, using tools to build your resilience so you can respond intentionally to life’s challenges, rather than simply react.

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