Understanding the Stress Response

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When something stressful happens, the body has a system in place that works to keep you safe in the face of potential danger. This process is regulated by parts of the brain, particularly the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, and with hormones such as cortisol.

Stress is normal and even healthy in short bursts, as the stress response can help you avoid danger and provide energy to push through short-term issues (such as meeting a deadline). This is called acute stress, which goes away quickly. Stress that lasts too long or occurs frequently is called chronic stress, which can have negative health consequences.

Read on to learn what the stress response is and how the body uses it.

Businesswoman is tired and stressed at work

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What Triggers the Stress Response?

When the body perceives a threat, real or interpreted, it coordinates a response between several systems, such as the HPA axis, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the adrenal cortex (which releases stress hormones such as cortisol). This response helps you be prepared to deal with danger in the moment and then helps you recover from it.

The stress response is necessary for personal and species survival.

Stages of Stress

The body physiologically reacts to stress in three stages, called general adaptation syndrome.

General Adaptation Syndrome Triggers - Illustration by Michela Buttignol

Verywell / Michela Buttignol

Stage 1: Alarm

In this stage, your body is alerted to a stressor, which awakens the central nervous system (CNS) and prepares you to react. This is often referred to as "fight or flight."

The stressor that triggers the alarm stage can be primary (a sudden, frightening experience, such as seeing a car heading toward you) or secondary (deliberately entering a stressful situation, like taking an exam).

During the alarm stage, you might experience:

Stage 2: Resistance

During stage 2, your body tries to return to normal by bringing down your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure. During this phase, your body begins to repair itself but may stay on high alert for a while.

If your body doesn't successfully recover from stage 1, it can start releasing stored sugars and fats, which consumes vital resources and may cause you to:

  • Overeat, eat foods that are not nutritious, or perform other unhealthy behaviors
  • Feel exhausted or fatigued
  • Feel anxiety or tension
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Get sick

Stage 3: Exhaustion

If stages 1 and 2 continue over time without resolution (your stress doesn't go away), you enter the third stage in which there is a breakdown of balance within the body. This is known as chronic stress.

Chronic stress can lead to a variety of health problems, including:

How Does Chronic Stress Affect the Body?

Stress can cause many behavioral, psychological, emotional, physical, cognitive, and social symptoms. Stress affects multiple systems within the body, including the:

How to Counter the Stress Response

Acute stress is unavoidable, so it can be counterproductive to try to avoid the stress response altogether. In the short term, the body's stress response helps you cope with the situation and build resiliency. Avoiding normal, healthy stress instead of learning to handle it can lead to bigger problems in the long run.

Stress becomes problematic when it persists and isn't addressed in the moment. There are several ways to help handle acute stress productively and prevent it from progressing into chronic stress.

Relaxation Techniques

Eliciting the relaxation response can help counter the stress response. This can be achieved through techniques such as:

  • Deep abdominal breathing
  • Box breathing (exhaling, holding your lungs empty, inhaling, and then holding air in your lungs, all to the count of four) and other breathing exercises
  • Muscle relaxation exercises
  • Focusing on a soothing words or images
  • Visualizing tranquil scenes or using guided imagery
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi

Other activities you can try to help you relax include:

  • Be creative (reading, writing, drawing, listening to or playing music, etc.)
  • Sit in a quiet, safe space
  • Spend time outside
  • Remind yourself of your positive attributes and strengths
  • Watch a funny movie or TV show

Exercise

Being active is a helpful tool for de-stressing in the moment and for fighting overall stress. Exercise prompts your body to produce chemicals called endorphins, which help combat stress and pain and make you feel good.

About 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day is optimal, but check with your healthcare provider on how much exercise you should do and what types.

If you aren't currently active, start slowly, such as taking the stairs when you can or getting off the bus one stop early.

Social Resources

Connecting with others and building a social support network is important. Some ways to make connections include:

  • Talking to or spending time with friends and family
  • Getting involved in the community through things like clubs, classes, or volunteering
  • Joining support groups online or in person (for stress management or specific things that are causing you stress)

Stress Management Apps

Some stress management apps to consider include:

Other Measures

Some other measures that may help with stress management include:

  • Get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep each night.
  • Engage in physical affection with loved ones or pets.
  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods regularly.

When to Seek Professional Mental Help

Sometimes stress can't be managed on your own, and you may find seeking professional mental health help is beneficial or necessary. Talk to a mental health professional if you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, scared, or unable to function at school, work, or home. If stress is affecting you physically, such as with panic attacks, see a healthcare provider or go to the emergency room if you feel it's an emergency.

Summary

When stress is temporary, the stress response is usually beneficial, as it helps you react to the situation and build resilience. However, ongoing or long-lasting (chronic) stress can cause health concerns, like high blood pressure, so preventing or managing chronic stress is essential. Ways to manage stress include relaxation techniques, healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercise and sleep, and connecting with others.

A Word From Verywell 

Everyone experiences stress from time to time, and that's not a bad thing. But if you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed frequently, talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional about measures you can take to reduce and manage stress in your life. It's worth the effort to combat stress before it leads to negative health outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does the body adapt to stress?

    Yes. The body has a built-in response system to adapt to normal levels of stress. If stress continues, it can cause problems in the body and needs to be addressed.

  • What is the first step in handling stress?

    First, you need to identify what is causing you stress. This could be anything your body sees as a threat, including financial problems, relationship conflicts, or anything else that makes you feel stressed or experience symptoms of stress.

  • What aspect of stress can you control?

    Sometimes, you can control the triggers of your stress. For example, if getting stuck in traffic daily causes you stress, you could switch to public transit.

    Often, though, stress is a part of life. What you can control is how you respond to stress. Learning how to manage stress effectively can help you handle some of the problems that arise from having chronic stress.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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