Stress is when we feel emotional or mental strain or tension when we find ourselves in anxiety producing situations. Depending on how we interpret the level of ‘threat’ our bodies react accordingly and instinctively.
What happens to our bodies when we get stressed?
Alarm reaction -Fight or flight response
When we are stressed, in fight or flight mode, one of the body’s physiological responses is that our breathing increases, and becomes rapid and shallow. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction is our body’s primitive response to what it perceives as a ‘threat’. The ‘threat’ used to be predators chasing us or when we had to run away from our enemies. Nowadays the ‘threats’ are more subtle, such as ‘internal threats’ such as stresses in our family life, fears at work, being stuck in traffic, a job interview, an impending exam, a stressful social situation, or when we feel anxious.
Resistance or adaptation
When we reach stage 2 our bodies have a rapid physical response to the perceived threat. There will be increased and decreased activity in various bodily functions as your whole system prioritises what it needs in order to deal with the stressor. For example, your circulation increases blood supply to brain, muscles and to limbs so you can run faster and digestion slows down or stops as it is not needed at that precise moment.
After the ‘threat’ has been perceived as resolved, the parasympathetic nervous system returns many physiological functions to normal levels (homeostasis) while body focuses resources against the stressor or ‘threat’. However, at this point, blood glucose levels remain high, cortisol and adrenalin continue to circulate at elevated levels, there is an increase in the heart rate and blood pressure, with rapid possibly shallow breathing yet the outwardly you may appear normal. Even though you may feel as if you have dealt with the ‘threat’, for example, having got through the stressful job interview, your body may still be on high alert.
Exhaustion stage or burn out
After lengthy periods of incessant stress people enter the third phase of exhaustion or burn out. This is when people often start to get sick as their immune system is compromised. At this stage we have no defences left as we have been on high alert for so long.