The Physiology of Stress and How to Manage It

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

You’ve likely experienced the effects of stress—sweaty palms, racing heart, shallow breathing—and are familiar with the sense of overwhelm it can bring.

This article explores the physiological underpinnings of stress, its impact on various bodily systems and useful strategies for navigating it.

Stress 101

The body’s stress response is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. When faced with acute danger, your body responds with a cascade of physical and hormonal changes that prepare you to respond. Some of these changes include:

  1. Increased blood pressure and heart rate

  2. A surge of the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol

  3. Reduced blood flow to visceral organs and increased blood flow to musculoskeletal system

  4. Heightened muscle tensionInhibition of immunity,

  5. digestion and reproductive functions (Sapolsky, 1994)

Chronic Stress and Mental Health

Chronic stress can negatively impact mood, and high levels of stress are related to increased rates of both depression and anxiety (Khan and Alam Khan, 2017)

Elevated cortisol levels are often seen in individuals with major depression, and animals with high corticosteroid levels show symptoms of depression, such as poor sleep, locomotor changes, reduced appetite and low libido (Khan and Alam Khan, 2017).

Chronic Stress and Disease

The prevailing theory behind lifestyle-related disease is that of underlying inflammation. Inflammation is part of the immune response to illness or injury, where white blood cells, antibodies and cytokines defend compromised tissues

Unchecked stress can incite or perpetuate systemic inflammation, and research reveals that stress is a common risk factor in 75-90% of modern diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer (Liu, Wang and Jiang, 2017).

The Benefits of Stress

While it may seem that stress is inherently negative, it can be beneficial. Stress can boost cognition, motivation, memory, creativity, vigilance and perseverance.

Stress is a natural part of life. When unchecked, the body’s physiological response can negatively impact health. However, your mindset can transform your stress response, allowing it to enhance creativity, motivation and perseverance, ultimately helping you become more resilient in the face of future stressors.

Interested in learning more about what it takes to live a healthier lifestyle and perhaps, help others to do so too? Check out my website and book your Free Session here today, start to improve your health and feel less stressed!


American Psychological Association. (2019). Stress Effects on the Body.

Block, J.P. et al. (2009). Psychosocial stress and change in weight among U.S. adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 170, 2, 181–192.

Crum, A.J. et al. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 30, 4, 379–395.

Harding, J.L. et al. (2014). Psychosocial stress is positively associated with body mass index gain over 5 years: evidence from the longitudinal AusDiab study. Obesity, 22, 1, 277286.

Kahn, S. and Alam Kahn, R. (2017). Chronic stress leads to anxiety and depression. Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health, 5, 1, 1091.

Kilby, C.J. and Sherman, K.A. (2016). Delineating the relationship between stress mindset and primary appraisals: Preliminary findings. SpringerPlus, 5, 336.



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