Understanding the body’s stress response

Understanding our body’s stress response can help us to cope better with the damaging effect of stress from our busy lives. Evolution has given us a body system that can operate almost in a typecast role when it encounters and responds to threats - real or perceived. We can begin to breathe faster, our heartbeat speeds at an increased pace and our muscles tense up as our bodies prepare for action.


From an evolutionary perspective, these reactions helped with survival as our ancestors ran from, or fought, predators on the savannah. However, any stressful situation, such as arguing with someone close to you, going on a blind date, having a looming deadline at work, suffering abdominal cramps, discovering your car or bike was vandalised or robbed, or public speaking, has the potential to activate this evolutionary bodily response.

It may not be actual survival at stake, like facing a predator on the savannah, but your body response thinks that it is. Neuroscientists call this reaction the stress response. Your body is activated when the stress response is triggered in response to any external or internal threat to homeostasis. Put simply, homeostasis is the normal equilibrium of body function.

Stress is when we feel under too much mental or emotional pressure in some aspect of our life, whether in our work, family or social arena. There can be good and bad stress. Good stress is when we become motivated to improve our performance and set higher goals for attainment as a result of experiencing discomfort. Good stress might also help us avoid the pitfall of complacency, boredom and laziness. We all have different ways and means of how we react to stressful events, so a certain situation that feels stressful to one person may be motivating to the next person.

Bad stress is the real enemy of our mental and emotional well-being. This is when pressure in some aspect of our life leaves us feeling unable to cope. Symptoms of bad stress are when we might feel increasingly irritable, angry and overwhelmed. We may find it difficult to concentrate as if we have a racing mind. But like most emotional states there will be very individualised responses. Some people might become uninterested in life, but others might become over-involved. Stress is highly subjective, and it is not measurable with tests.

Brain function can be complicated. The stress response forms from three of the brain’s parallel communication systems, in the process, coordinating the activity of both voluntary and involuntary nervous systems, including muscles, and metabolism in order to achieve one defensive goal. There are many good brain facts materials freely available online to explain this process in detail. The key message in this article is that whilst it is very hard to avoid stress it is useful to know how your body responds to stressful events.

How we deal with stress is the barometer of how healthily we emotionally regulate. How we deal with our own particular stressors in our lives can trigger addictive tendencies and processes. For example, when we experience emotional discomfort, do we cope with that discomfort by resorting to a healthy set of behaviours to help us feel better?

Healthy behaviours would typically involve having a good physical exercise regime, prioritising a healthy balance of diet and sleep, and taking time out to reflect on our day and what we achieved rather than what was not achieved. It also involves setting appropriate goals to achieve longer-term tasks.

Unhealthy behaviours end up compromising our ability to return to emotional equilibrium organically. These would typically be quick-fix attempts to escape from difficult feelings and states of mind. Over-reliance on drink, drugs, gambling and sex can be the common quick fixes that can prove to be self-destructive.

You can boost your resilience to the damaging effects of stress by being proactive in your self-care regime. This could be a good time to boost your social support structure. Who doesn’t need a good pair of ears to listen to your worries? You don't need someone who will make the conversation about them rather than actually listening to you.

Positive coping responses will keep you in the present moment. They can empower you to actively work toward solving your problems. Think of physical exercise, practising meditation, playing with a pet, gardening, listening to music or walking in nature. When you try to stay in your flow state you are less likely to seek escape from the attraction of quick fixes.

Therapy can help to deal with past emotional wounding that is feeding so-called legacy behaviours and addictive processes. Legacy behaviours are often things we do that might have been required at an earlier point in our life - but are now not necessary.

An example of a legacy behaviour might be distrusting everyone you meet because you fear being manipulated. This may have been a survival technique to keep you feeling safe in the past, for example, if you had suffered bullying as a child. Your vigilance perhaps was needed to have an active radar when spotting threats. However, a blanket mistrust of others could now be preventing you from reaching out to others and having more intimate relationships. Addictive behaviours might also have been attempts to feel secure, safe and connected but such behaviours might have come to be self-destructive and counter-productive.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.

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