What is the stress response?
The body has a built-in automatic emergency response that uses the nervous system and endocrine system to enhance the body’s performance when danger is perceived. Think of it as an emergency mechanism that the body mobilizes to give us an extra edge or “super-strength” when dangerous situations occur.
Sometimes people have said they felt like they had “superhuman” strength when they were in danger. For example: the ability to lift the full weight of a car because someone was trapped underneath. Or, having the ability to run well beyond a person’s capability in order to get help for someone in trouble. Such feats were made possible by the body’s automatic emergency response system and the hormones it naturally produces when danger is perceived.
In the days when humans had to protect themselves against vicious beasts on a daily basis, this “emergency system” came in handy. Even though the beasts we face today may be different (pressure on the job rather than a saber-toothed tiger chasing us), the emergency system still responds the same way.
When the body is healthy and functioning normally, the body’s chemical makeup is in balance¬—even though there are literally thousands of chemicals involved. We call this balance the “normal state” (where all chemicals are within normal ranges). Balance keeps the body functioning and responding appropriately to the internal (the workings of the body) and external (the world around us) environments.
When danger is perceived, the body's emergency system automatically changes the body’s balance by producing the “stress response” (also called the “emergency response,” the “fear response,” or the “fight or flight response.”). This change of balance – emergency readiness – is brought about via hormones – chemical messengers that are secreted into the bloodstream.
The moment we think we are in danger, the body triggers a stress response. The stress response causes the body to secrete stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine, and others) into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with the threat—to either fight with or flee from it.
These hormones are powerful, which is why they can quickly bring about the intended emergency readiness changes. Because stress hormones travel to many target locations in the body, the stress response causes many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes, such as:
- Energizes the body
- Heightens our awareness of and reaction to danger
- Elevates heart rate
- Changes breathing
- Stimulates the nervous system
- Heightens senses
- Tightens muscles
- Changes stomach and digestive function
- Changes brain functioning
- Constricts blood vessels
- Changes blood flow
And so much more.
For a more detailed explanation about the many changes the stress response brings about, Recovery Support members can read Chapter 3 in the Recovery Support area.
These changes remain active as long as stress hormones are active and/or additional stress responses are triggered.
Stages of a stress response
The stress response has five distinct stages:
- Alarm stage – stress hormones are secreted into the bloodstream the moment after we think we are in danger
- Hormone peak – the moment after the full hormone burst has entered the bloodstream
- Duration – the length of time stress hormones are active
- Recovery – when we realize the danger has passed, the body stops producing stress responses, the stress hormones that haven’t been used up are expelled from the body, and the body enters into the recovery phase (recovery from the stress response changes)
- End – when the body has completed the recovery phase and returns to the normal state
Once again, for a more detailed explanation about the stress response stages, Recovery Support members can read Chapter 3 in the Recovery Support area.
Degrees of stress responses
In addition to the many changes the stress response brings about, stress responses can also occur in degrees – from slight to maximum. The degree of stress response and its changes is directly proportional to the degree of perceived danger.
For example, if you think the danger is minor, you’ll experience a minor degree stress response - small amount of stress hormones secreted into the bloodstream - which produces minor physiological, psychological, and emotional changes.
If you believe you are in grave danger, your body will produce a dramatic stress response – large amount of stress hormones secreted into the bloodstream – which produces major physiological, psychological, and emotional changes.
The degree of stress response and its changes is directly proportional to the degree of perceived danger.
We generally feel the effects of a major stress response as its changes are significant. That’s often not the case with minor stress responses, as their changes can be almost negligible. But, there aren’t any freebies meaning that the body experiences a stress response every time we think we are in danger.
Even though we may not notice the effects of a stress response, the body undergoes stress response changes every time we perceive a threat.
Typically, the body can recover relatively quickly from a stress response because the stress response is intended for only emergency situations. For example, if the perceived threat is but a moment, the body can recover within minutes after the stress response has ended. If we think we are in danger for more than a minute or so, however, it may take 20 minutes or more for the body to recover after a stress response has ended.
So even though the body has experienced a stress response, all bodily systems and chemicals return to their normal values shortly after the stress response has ended. The length of recovery time is contingent on the type and degree of stress response. For more information, Recovery Support members can read about the two-stage stress response in Chapter 3.
Nevertheless, under normal situations, the stress response is our ally and functions perfectly in how it helps us deal with danger. And, the body can recover relatively quickly after the stress response has ended.
This is the good news. But there is also a dark side to the body’s stress response. Click the link for information about stress-response hyperstimulation.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated July 2016.