The true impact of stress

Stress is something most of us can relate to, and it affects our bodies in a number of ways. Stress doesn’t just affect the mind; it also has a huge impact on the way our bodies function.

The state of our bodies is monitored and controlled mostly by the anatomic nervous system. This system has two opposing divisions; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The Sympathetic Nervous System activates the response commonly known as 'fight or flight'. The Parasympathetic Nervous System conserves energy and regulates body functions such as digestion and reproduction. When one system is more active, the other one is less active, like a see-saw.

The sympathetic system can be activated by internal factors such as fear or thirst, and external stressors like changes in temperature or an injury. Regardless of the source of the stress, the body’s response is the same; to increase the sympathetic activity.

This image shows that when our brain registers stressors, there is a production of substances such as Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH). This releases the steroid hormone, cortisol, from the adrenal glands which has a number of effects all over the body.

Although appropriate activation of the stress system allows us to escape from danger, react to situations and perform tasks (1), it is inappropriate or prolonged activation that can contribute to hormone disorders and growth disorders, and problems with the muscle and skeletal systems.

(Graph adapted from Aptel and Cnockaert 2002(2))

This flow chart demonstrates how stress triggers our bodies to release a variety of hormones and chemicals. Such releases can sometimes result in muscle pain, build up of fluids, strain on joints and inflammation in the body.


There are ways to help reduce the stress response to help manage the symptoms experienced from being on guard all the time! Here are a few tips to help manage your stress levels that we have tried and tested!

Breath work

Breathing is the only automatic bodily function that we can consciously control and is an effective way to decrease the stress response. One of our favourites is box breathing; inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 and hold your lungs empty for a count of 4. Give it a try!

Egoless exercises

When our minds switch off from daily stressors, our bodies tend to switch off too. Mindfulness exercises like yoga and Pilates are extremely effective at helping to reduce stress. Aerobic exercises like swimming and running, when there is no competitive edge, can also be effective in managing stress levels.

Sleep hygiene

Anxiety before bed increases your heart rate and the overall stress response, and can have a negative impact on sleep quality and quantity. Choosing activities that limit this such as reading, meditation and not working before bed can help you switch off. Another technique is having a ‘worry list’ ready to write down any stressors before bed or in the night if you wake up in a panic.


  1. Sapolsky, R.M. (2004) ‘Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers’. In Sapolsky, R.M., (3rd ed) Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York, USA: St Martin’s Press: pp10-18

  2. Aptel, M. and Cnockaert, J.C. (2002) 'Stress and Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Upper Extremities'. TUTB Newsletter, 19-20: 50-56.

Photos by Marcus Aurelius, Mikhail Nilov, Ketut Subiyanto and

from Pexels

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