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The Effects of Stress on the Body

Stress is a normal response to situational pressures especially if the situation is perceived as threatening and causing harm to a person (20131 Stress. n.d.). When an individual experiences stress, hormones are released throughout the body to cause effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, tense muscles, and preparing to take action against the threat (20131 Stress. n.d.).

Each of the body systems plays an important role in the optimal functioning of the body, but if mental health is unwell, specifically if someone is stressed or anxious it can cause functioning in some of these systems to go array. Depending on the situation, the body will either go into ‘rest and digest’ or ‘fight or flight’. Normally, the body is in rest and digest but in a threatening or believed to

be threatening situation the body goes into fight or flight mode. Just as the name says, the body either prepares to fight the threat or flee from it (Tortora & Derrickson, 2016). When the brain recognizes a stressful situation it immediately sends information to the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls all involuntary processes, such as the heartbeat, blood pressure, and how fast blood runs through the body etc. (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011).

Depending on the situation, the body will either go into ‘rest and digest’ or ‘fight or flight’.

When the fight or flight response is triggered it immediately releases a surge of epinephrine (adrenaline) into the blood which is transported all over the body. The release of epinephrine causes many reactions including (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011):

  • An increase in a heartbeat to allow for faster circulation

  • More blood is forced to the muscles and organs to allow for immediate use

  • Increase in blood pressure due to more blood being forced through the vessels at a higher rate

  • Increase in breathing rate to allow for more oxygen uptake by the body, especially the brain to improve alertness

  • Triggers the release of sugar and fat from storage to be used as an energy source

These reactions may seem harmless but chronic activation of this response can impair health (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011). Epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, leading to increased blood pressure and risks for health conditions such as heart attacks and/or strokes. This response also diminishes the ability of the body’s energy stores to replenish and contributes to the buildup of fat tissue and weight gain (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011).

Exercise has many benefits to reduce stress levels by:

  • Reducing the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) released in the body

  • Creating a distraction from daily life worries and concerns

  • Increasing resilience against stress (Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms, 2017)

  • Reducing the severity of stress (Star, 2019)

  • Reducing muscle tension

  • Improving sleep (The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise, 2019).

Exercise calms the nervous system by breaking down stress hormones and using the energy created during the fight or flight response to do work in combination with allowing the release of endorphins (feel-good hormones) to combat the stressful feelings (Soph, 2018).

Stress usually manifests negatively by emotional outbursts, such as crying or anger, but exercise can create a positive outlet as well as allowing the body to release a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which strengthens connections in the brain making it less susceptible to over-react to future stress (AlterG., 2017). Exercise also increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain allowing it to receive more nutrients to use as energy for sharper thinking and mental efficiency (AlterG., 2017).

Ways to Reduce Stress (Stress Management, 2019)

  • Take a deep breath

  • Lay in a dark quiet room

  • Yoga

  • Quick exercises help relieve short term stress

  • Ex. If you feel stress at work or after a phone call doing 10 jumping jacks can reduce the release of cortisol further reducing feelings of stress

  • Do longer exercise programs

  • This can create long term benefits for managing stress levels

  • Get enough sleep

  • Set aside leisure time for rest and relaxation, take a break from your busy schedule

  • Make sure to do something you love every day

  • Laugh!

  • Reduce caffeine and sugar intake

  • Avoid smoking

Simple Ways to Get Moving (Stress Management, 2019)

  • Put on your favorite music and dance

  • Take your pet for a walk

  • Park further away from the store or ride a bike instead of driving

  • Use the stairs more often than the elevator

  • Get off at an earlier bus stop and walk the rest of the way

  • Go for a walk with a friend

  • Do activities with your children/grandchildren



20131 Stress. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2019, from

AlterG. (2017). Overcome and Manage Stress by Exercising Daily. Retrieved May 28, 2019,


Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. (2017). Retrieved May 12, 2019, from ..

Harvard Health Publishing. (2011). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved May 28, 2019,


Soph. (2018). 6 Ways to Switch Off the Fight-or-Flight Response. Retrieved May 28, 2019, from

Star, K. (2019). How Physical Exercise Benefits Mental Health. Retrieved May 13,

2019, from

Stress Management. (2019). Retrieved May 28, 2019, from

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. (2019). Retrieved May 13, 2019, from

Tortora, G, J. & Derrickson, B. (2016). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 15th Edition.

Wiley. Vital Book file.

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