What Happens When We're Stressed?
You are probably familiar with what happens to your body in stressful situations; your heart beats faster, your breathing quickens and you start to sweat. But are you aware of why this happens?
The way our body responds to stress developed when early humans were faced with real physical threats from predators. The causes of stress in our modern lives can be very different, yet our body still responds in the same way. It prepares to fight or run away. You may notice some of the following things your body does when it is under stress:
- Increased heart rate to pump blood to muscles
- Faster breathing to take in more oxygen
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Digestion slows to reduce non-essential energy use - this can cause the feeling of "butterflies in the stomach"
- Bladder muscles relax to lighten the load - you may find you need the toilet more
- Sweating to keep the body cool
This is known as the “fight or flight” response. People will often avoid situations they associate with stress, but this can actually create further stress.
Stress occurs when our resources outweigh the demands that have been placed on us. This means that the same thing can be stressful to some people, in some circumstances but not others. What may seem like a relatively small event can be the stressor that tips us from coping into not coping.
Being under constant stress for a long period of time can impact on our well-being. We may notice changes in our mood, behaviour and physical health. How many of the following things have you noticed at stressful times?
- Muscle tension and pain - often in the shoulders and neck
- Poor concentration and memory
- Sleep difficulties
- Weight changes
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Low mood
- More frequent colds and infections
Reducing The Impact Of Stress
There are two ways that we can learn to handle stress more effectively, either to reduce the stress or improve the way we can cope with it:
1. Reducing the demands on us
Some of the strategies covered elsewhere on this website can help us to reduce the amount of stress we are under; for example pacing, improving sleep and communicating more effectively.
Problem solving can also be an effective strategy, using the worksheets to the right to help us.
However, not all stress is avoidable; many of us have commitments that we need to meet and there will be difficult periods in life where many stressors occur at the same time. At these times it is important that we invest in the second method.
2. Increasing our coping resources
Some ways of increasing our ability to cope with stress can be helpful for most people; other ways only help a few. It's a good idea to come up with a variety of ways of coping that can be used both to handle stress in the moment and to prevent stress in the long-term. For instance, mindfulness can be an effective stress reliever in the short term and also has long-term preventative effects if used regularly.
Please note - at current the links below are re-directing to our old website which is no longer covered by a security certificate. We are working to sort this as soon as possible and we are sorry for any inconvenience that this may cause.
Worksheet 5.2a - Problem Solving (Worked Example)
Worksheet 5.2b - Problem Solving Grid
Worksheet 5.3 - Threat Drive Soothe System