Physiological Effects
of Stress

What are the physiological effects of stress?


The physiological effects of stress are real, immediate and potent, and in the short term are appropriate and necessary. But if they go on too long, they can pose a whole host of serious threats to your health, which sooner or later start to show up as the physical symptoms of stress.


That's an adrenalin molecule. Useful and helpful initially, but becomes less so...


Wondering what's the difference between the physiological effects of stress and the physical effects?

The term physical refers to the actual structures of the body - your muscles, bones, organs etc. - whereas the term physiological refers to a process or function of the body. Some examples would include healing, digestion, respiration and so on.

It's only after the physiological effects of stress have run on unchecked for a while that the physical effects will start to appear.


Initial physiological effects of stress

1 The Sympathetic Nervous System

One of the first physiological effects of stress is that your adrenal glands go into overdrive, producing adrenaline and cortisol that speed up to the hypocampus in the brain, to rev it up ready for fight or flight. This has been triggered by the sympathetic nervous system firing up - so called because it acts in sympathy with the current stimulus.

2 The Paraympathetic Nervous System

Once the sabre-tooth tiger has been seen off, or more likely you've nailed that important meeting/managed to reduce your baby’s frightening temperature/stood up to the bully in the playground/workplace (can you tell the difference?) - the parasympathetic nervous should take over (although it doesn’t always – see below for what can happen).

The role of the parasympathetic system is to rebalance the what the sympathetic nervous system has started, and bring your system back into balance (or homeostasis - see below)

When this happens as it should, it triggers other hormones to mop up any remaining cortisol and adrenalin and take them down to the kidneys, where your body attempts to excrete them in your urine (which is why your stress levels can be measured via a urine test).

3 Not equal partners

The catch is that the sympathetic nervous system – the one producing those immediate, emergency physiological effects of stress that give you the resources to get out of immediate danger – is dominant. This means that sometimes the parasympathetic nervous system – that’s the corresponding part, that brings you back into balance - might not kick in automatically. This is especially likely if you are suffering with chronic stress – working in a stressful job day after day; suffering a loss; struggling to make ends meet, in conflict with someone – anything that you personally find stressful.

So then you are left with adrenaline and other substances running round your body, keeping your breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure raised, in expectation of a fight or the need to run away. And when this happens those hormones and other sustances are now in the right place at the wrong time, and you know that can't be good.

4 Regaining balance

This means that you need to proactively choose to do something to get the parasympathetic nervous system working delivering those soothing hormones (serotonin, endorphins, etc.) – and the good news is that is entirely possible to relax yourself, once you find what works for you.

Relaxation is a very different state from being stressed, and when you are in it you are actually enabling your body to counter the physiological effects of stress – and indeed, to produce alternative, positive effects that bring your system back to homeostasis.




Homeostasis: metabolic balance, i.e. the normal or stable functioning of the various systems that make up the metabolism such as, the processes in the liver, the brain, the kidneys, the endocrine (hormonal) system and the autonomic nervous system. These last two are the most immediately relevant to stress).


How you personally achieve this is going to be very individual. For some it is physical activity whether that is sport, yoga, tai chi etc., while at other times or for other people it might be socializing, having a laugh, playing games, watching a movie, listening to some music, making love, having a massage…

Whatever does it for you, make time in your week, several times every week, to let the happy hormones flow – Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin being the main ones.

5 The benefits of Flow

Ideally, you will have activities in your life that get you into that ultimate altered state known as *flow*, that unique feeling of utter absorption when an activity consumes all your conscious attention (and probably quite a lot of your unconscious attention, too). Some people are lucky enough to able to achieve this as part of the work they do, whatever that may be, and if you are able to build opportunities for flow into your daily schedule it will have a positive effect on your mental and emotional state.

When you are in this state you are on the positive side of the stress curve.

For probably most of us however, we will need to find something outside of our daily work routine to get us into such a state. Some people find that more focused methods of altering their state are really helpful for managing stress – methods such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, self-hypnosis, etc. For some people it will be running, playing a musical instrument, or cooking; it's incredibly individual.

Just remember that *anything* can be either positively or negatively stressful – just because your friend finds a hard game of rugby or watching horror movies relaxing doesn’t mean you are going to, so make sure you choose the right activity for you.

6 Your state is under your control

The key thing to know is that you can head off the physiological effects of stress, by inducing a different state – “relaxation” which creates the conditions that allow different, and healing physiological processes to take over.


A little bit of this....

...gives you a little of this (Dopamine, one of the good guys)


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