What is the body's response to stress?


The body's response to stress is an intricate physiological process designed to enhance survival, but it's often maladaptive in modern contexts. Here are some key points from trusted experts:

  1. Hormonal Pathway Activation: Stress initiates the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This leads to the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which ramp up energy availability by increasing blood sugar levels and heart rate, and preparing the muscles to respond to threats 1.

  2. Fight or Flight Response: This ancient survival mechanism involves the sympathetic nervous system, which boosts alertness and physical readiness by increasing blood flow to critical areas like the brain and muscles. This diverts resources away from non-essential functions such as digestion and immune response 2 3.

    Rethinking Stress

    Dr. Mithu Storoni challenges our understanding of stress, highlighting the blurred definition and the physiological reactions that occur in the body. She explains how stress is a survival mechanism, rooted in our evolutionary history of escaping predators. By delving into the seven pathways triggered during a stress response, she provides actionable insights for managing stress.

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    Stress Proof Your Brain - Dr Mithu Storoni MD, PhD
  3. Physiological Changes: Acute stress triggers multiple changes including increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. Blood is rerouted from the gut to the muscles to facilitate rapid movement. Inflammation and insulin resistance temporarily rise to counteract potential wounds and maintain sugar availability for the brain 1 2.

  4. Chronic Stress Consequences: While beneficial in short bursts, prolonged stress keeps the body in a heightened state of readiness, leading to negative health impacts such as suppressed immunity, digestive issues, and increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Continuous activation of the stress response also affects the gut microbiome, allowing pathogenic bacteria to thrive 4 2.

  5. Perceived vs. Actual Threats: Modern stressors like emails, social media, and daily inconveniences can continuously activate the stress response, even though they aren't life-threatening. The body doesn't distinguish well between real and perceived threats, leading to chronic activation of stress pathways and subsequent health problems 2 1.

Understanding these mechanisms can help in managing stress more effectively, allowing us to mitigate its detrimental effects on the body and mind.