Physical response to stress


Stress is a physical reaction to a threatening or scary situation. Everyone reacts to stress differently, which makes certain situations (e.g., giving a presentation to a large group of people) scarier for some than for others.


What happens in our bodies when we experience stress?

Stressful situations activate different systems in your brain. The hormones noradrenaline and adrenaline are released, and your body is primed for action. This creates the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body is then prepared to fight, flee or freeze in a stressful or threatening situation. The ‘fight or flight’ response results in the following physical symptoms:

  • Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Faster and deeper breathing
  • Tightening of muscles
  • Blood draining from your face
  • Increased sweating
  • Decreased blood flow to your gut and brain
  • Decreased activity in your immune system


Healthy stress: short-term

The symptoms mentioned above are a natural and healthy response to stress. Your body’s stress response ensures that you are prepared for action in emergency situations (think of our ancestors, who had to flee from predators quickly to stay alive). But stress can also help in your daily life. At work or during sports activities, for example, during which healthy and short-term stress helps you to perform well. It makes you become alert, focused and efficient. Your body will recover once the stressful situation is over; your heart rate and breathing return to normal, your blood pressure stabilizes, your muscle tone decreases, and your digestive system starts up again. Nowadays, however, we no longer react to physical threats only, but also to threats of a psychological nature. Having high expectations of oneself, experiencing feelings of inferiority or having trouble being assertive, for example. Psychological stress is often not just temporary but is a long-term form of stress.


Unhealthy stress: long-term

When stress is present for a long period of time, or when the body reacts too strongly to a stressful situation, this can lead to more problems. In this situation, more time is needed for you and your body to recover, but, often, there is not enough time for recovery during stressful periods. As a result, the stress can accumulate and consequently lead to chronic stress. This is unhealthy stress, which can cause all kinds of complaints. The following longer-lasting complaints are often warning signs of, for example, a burnout:

  • Pain in head, neck and back, stiffness when standing up
  • Hyperventilation or dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headache
  • Depression
  • Irritability, difficulty concentrating or indecisiveness
  • Blurred vision, double vision
  • High blood pressure, heart problems
  • Stomach and intestinal complaints
  • Susceptibility to diseases and infections

Stay alert to these symptoms when experiencing stress. Are you struggling with these symptoms on a regular basis? Then it is wise to get into action by making specific adjustments to your daily life. Do you need some extra support or help? You can find information on where to go if you’re suffering from these complaints here.



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