What actually is stress?

Stress. What actually is Stress?

What does  ‘stress’ mean to you? What situations do you find stressful?

Stress means something different to us all. We all find different elements of our lives stressful. Something that causes me stress, you may take in your stride. There are those day to day stressors such as asking a child to get ready to leave the house when they are busy gaming. Or the one-off sources of stress, such as giving a presentation to a roomful of people.  Many people, unlike me, take presenting in their stride, even finding it enjoyable. On the other hand, others may find entertaining family at Christmas very stressful. Personally, I find that I can play to my strengths in that situation, using my organisational skills to ensure I am well prepared and, as I’m definitely not a perfectionist I can relax and ‘roll-with-the-punches’ when things don’t go quite to plan or I forget to cook the stuffing ( I always forget something).

What actually is stress? The stress response is a survival instinct.

What is the Stress Response?

Stress is our natural, biological, physiological response to a potentially threatening situation. It’s a response born out of our days as cave-man and cave-women when we had to deal with the genuine, life-threatening dangers daily. For example the very real threat of predators, or the collapse of the safe, warm shelter of our cave. The stress response is a survival instinct, designed to enable us to take one of a limited choice of actions, usually either flight (running away) or fight. Both of these responses require increased oxygen to our lungs and increased blood supply to our skeletal muscles to give us the strength and stamina needed. 

What actually is stress? The stress response makes us physically stronger and increases our stamina.

In order to achieve these goals, our brain releases stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones stimulate physical changes to how our bodies work:

In the short term we don’t need to digest our food (except sugars for energy). Digestion can wait until after the situation is over. Blood is, therefore, diverted away from our digestive system. This explains the nausea we experience with stress.

‘Modern’ parts of the brain including memory and language skills are not required in the short term. As a result blood supply to these regions of the brain is redirected elsewhere. This explains the ‘brain-fog’, memory problems (e.g. in exams) and difficulties we can have finding the right words (e.g. when we are about to give a presentation). This probably also explains why we can always think of the best, wittiest retort for that unbelievably rude individual, several hours after the event.

Blood is also diverted away from our skin, resulting in the cold, clammy sensations we experience.

Our breathing becomes faster and shallower in order to get more oxygen into the lungs for transportation to our muscles.

Our heart rate and blood pressure increase to get more oxygenated blood to the muscles as quickly as possible.

Blood supply to the skeletal muscles (arms and legs) is increased to give them strength and stamina. 

In addition our blood clotting ability increases, sensitivity to pain decreases and our immune system (which protects us from disease) is also decreased.

What actually is stress? We rarely meet an actual tiger in modern life

Of course, in modern life, this stress response is frequently inappropriate. I’ve never yet encountered a tiger in my village. And my house hasn’t collapsed yet either (even the doors are withstanding the pre-teen door-slamming so far!). Fighting or running away won’t help with stubborn children, exams or presentations. This means that when we experience stress, we don’t usually burn off the physical aspects of the stress response. As a result we are left with the effects of those stress hormones in our bodies for a long time. I’ll look more at the longer term consequences of stress and how to manage stress in our daily lives in a future blog. But for now I’ll just look at how we can manage our stress response at the time.

How can I control my stress response?

So, how can we reduce our stress response when we are in a situation that we find unpleasant and stressful? The easiest way to look at this is to look at aspects of the stress response.

What actually is stress? To stop re-triggering our stress response, we need to breathe


Even as children we are told to take a few slow deep breaths. There is a good reason for this. If the stress response speeds up our breathing, taking a few slower, deeper breaths, can help to slow our breathing. This helps us to regain control not only over our breathing but also over the rest of our body. As our breathing gets slower and deeper, our heart rate also slows down. Try it now. Take a few slow, deep breaths and notice how it makes you feel. Notice the rise and fall of your chest, notice your breathing rate and heart rate slowing down together, then notice your muscles begin to soften and relax.

Use language and memory:

Another way to reduce our stress response is to force the language and memory regions of our brain to work. Reciting either in your head or out loud a poem; the lyrics of a song; girls names beginning with each letter of the alphabet; or anything else you can think of which requires both language and memory. This helps to focus the mind, drawing attention back to language and memory, away from the primitive parts of our brain which focus only on survival rather than on reason and logic.

Awareness can help too:

Sometimes, it can be helpful just to be aware of and understand your stress response. Understanding why you feel the way you do (nauseous; dizzy; cold and clammy; tense; rapid breathing and heartrate) helps. Understanding, can allow you to take a step back, observe your response objectively and allow it to dissipate while you focus simply on breathing slowly and steadily until the feelings pass and you are able to move forward with your day.

Physical activity:

Physical Activity can help us to feel better and ‘burn off’ that pent-up energy. The stress response is designed to enable a burst of strenuous physical activity. Therefore, physical activity can be very helpful in allowing our body to return to a state of rest and relaxation.

Complementary therapies:

Complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology, and reiki can also help aid relaxation and reduce stress. Hypnotherapy and mindfulness are also widely and successfully used in stress management. Contact me today for more information about how I could help with any of these different therapies.

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  1. Pingback: 5 Simple Meditations You Can Use to Defuse Festive Stress [Listen Now] - Wellbeing Umbrella

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