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The Science Behind Stress

It is very natural to feel stressed around moments of pressure – but we are physiologically designed to deal with stress, and react to it.

When we feel under pressure the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us.

This is called the “stress response” or often

known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

Stress can sometimes be positive - as the stress response helps us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. Continuous activation of the nervous system – experiencing the “stress response” – causes wear and tear on the body.

When we are stressed, we tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. Although this is not an issue for all of us, it could be a problem for people with asthma who may feel short of breath and struggle to take in enough oxygen. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely if someone is prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Our immune systems are often affected as cortisol released in our bodies suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and we become more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions. Our ability to fight off illness is reduced.

Our muscles also tense up, which is the body’s natural way of protecting ourselves from injury and pain. Repeated muscle tension can cause bodily aches and pains, and when it occurs in the shoulders, neck and head it may result in tension headaches and migraines.

When stress is acute (in the moment), heart rate and blood pressure increase, but they return to normal once the acute stress has passed. If acute stress is repeatedly experienced, or if stress becomes chronic (over a long period of time) it can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries. This increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Stress can have some unpleasant gastrointestinal effects. We might experience heartburn and acid reflux especially if we have changed our eating habits to eat more or less, or increased our consumption of fatty and sugary foods. The ability of our intestines to absorb nutrients from our food may be reduced. We may experience stomach pain, bloating and nausea, diarrhoea or constipation.

It is normal to experience high and low moods in our daily lives - but when we are stressed we may feel more tired, have mood swings or feel more irritable than usual. Stress can cause difficulty falling or staying asleep and experience restless nights. This impairs concentration, attention, learning and memory, all of which are particularly important at work.

Under pressure, people may adopt more harmful habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs to relieve stress. But these behaviours only lead to more health problems and risks to our personal safety and wellbeing. We need to learn to manage our stress, before it manages us.

Some stress in life is normal – and a little stress can help us to feel alert, motivated, focused, energetic and even excited. Take positive actions to channel this energy effectively and you may find yourself performing better, achieving more and feeling good.

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