When we’re under pressure, our nervous system instructs our bodies to release ‘stress hormones’ such as adrenaline and cortisol. These jump start our ‘fight-or-flight’ response - the instinctive physiological responses that all humans and most mammals experience when faced with a threatening situation.
We’ve blogged before about how the fight-or-flight response works, but in this post we’ll be looking at how the different systems in the body react when we’re under pressure.
The first thing that changes when we’re stressed is our breathing rate. Most of us are likely to breath deeper and more quickly as our bodies aim to distribute oxygen-rich blood to our muscles. Although if you’re someone who struggles with panic attacks or anxiety, your fight-or-flight response could encourage quicker but shallower breathing which in some circumstances can lead to hyperventilation.
Our muscles are also affected. We tense up as this is a natural way of protecting against injury or pain. However ongoing stress can mean that we stay tense for longer, which can cause aches and pains especially in the neck and shoulders. This can also lead to tension headaches and migraines.
Another system that’s affected in the short and long term is the cardiovascular system. When the stress is acute (for example if you were to get nervous about doing an announcement to a large group of people) your heart rate and blood pressure increase. However if someone becomes stressed repeatedly or is sustained for long periods of time then this can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries.
Another long term effect of stress on our bodies is its affect on our immune systems. When cortisol is released it suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways making us more susceptible to infection and also reduces our ability to fight illness.
Stress also has a significant effect on our emotional well-being. When we’re stressed we’re likely to feel more tired and irritable, or experience mood swings. Tiredness can also be compounded by difficulty falling or staying asleep caused by hyperarousal.
Getting to know these effects will help you get to know your own body!