Understanding the Stress Response

What is stress?

We continue our series on stress as part of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek by asking what is stress?

The Physiological Response

Our bodies have developed a sophisticated response mechanism for coping with sudden stress and threats. It’s often called the fight-or-flight response. In short, your body diverts blood away from non-critical functions e.g. digestion, your heart rate and breathing both go up, all so your body can get more oxygen to the muscles in your limbs.


By Original by Jvnkfood, converted to PNG and reduced to 8-bit by Pokéfan95, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Once the threat has passed, your body returns to normal. It’s actual pretty ingenious.

The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat.

This type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to do well, such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.

The problem is, this system took millions of years to evolve and the way we now live has changed far quicker than our bodies. The stress response can’t distinguish between a sabre-tooth tiger or a looming deadline. We now go from stressful situation to stressful situation without ever giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover.

Long-term Stress

Our bodies are designed to cope with acute, short-term stress. In fact, there is evidence that this is even good for us (stay tuned for more tomorrow). But the short-term effects of the stress response quickly became harmful to us if experienced over a long period time without a break.

All that adrenaline and cortisol — the activating hormones of the body — keep us up night. They disrupt our digestion and our immune system. And over time, contribute to a myriad of physical and mental health problems.

The Psychological Response

Our stress response is primed to face life-threatening situations. That’s why it gives us two options: fight or flight. It’s not designed for the psychological stressors we have in modern life. Butt the response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats. Debt, housing, relationships, email, social media, work deadlines…it’s exhausting just thinking about all these things.

Ultimately, our modern stressors come down to a mismatch between expectations and reality. Times when the perceived demands on us outstrip our perceived ability to cope. When we are constantly wanting more than we have.

The good news is that, whilst we don’t have much control over what happens in the world, we do have a choice about how we react to it. Now that is often easier said than done but there are a host of tools and techniques we can use to manage our perceptions. And that’s what we’ll be talking about on Friday.