Stress and the Body

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Feeling stressed about school? Friends? Extracurriculars?

Stop. Breathe in, and take a look at what stress does to the body.

When the body experiences extreme levels of stress, it initiates a primitive fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. Within the sympathetic nervous system, parts of the brain which control fear and the adrenal glands, named the amygdala and hypothalamus respectively, stimulate the endocrine system to activate a reaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, also called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis then releases a series of hormones, called glucocorticoids. One glucocorticoid in particular, cortisol, permits the body to maintain homeostasis, the process in which the body undergoes multiple actions to maintain a constant physical and chemical state, by controlling the dispersion of glucose in the body and inhibiting the inflammatory responses of the immune system. The regulation of glucose and the immune system through cortisol was originally established during prehistoric times to escape life-threatening environmental situations. However, because the fight or flight response was constructed for the purpose of aiding circumstances which require brief yet intense moments of physical activity, our bodies, which, in the modern era, are now exposed to more psychological stressors over physical stress factors, are not built to deal with the physiological changes induced by an excess of cortisol.

In the presence of acute stress, or short term stress, the manufacture of cortisol can be welcoming. But following chronic stress, or long term stress, the overproduction of cortisol can create multiple detrimental effects: it prevents the liver from generating insulin in an attempt to increase the abundance of glucose and energy in our body, and compresses vessels of the heart in an effort to pump more blood for the body. Subsequently, the excess glucose and constriction of blood vessels can result in life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.

Ultimately, exposure to constant stress can cause long term, physical harm to our body. If we want to maintain a healthy lifestyle, one must learn to resolve and control unexpected situations that come our way.