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  • Writer's pictureDr. Donald Littlewood

The stress response & how to manage it

Stress is something we are literally all dealing with and for most, it is at a heightened level these days. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

But what is it really?

Well that’s what I am here to talk to you about today: stress & stress management.

What is stress?

Before I tell you what stress is, there is one word I want to talk about first: homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the natural balance that your body tries to maintain on a constant basis. Homeostasis is constantly challenged by both internal & external forces called stressors. This means that stress is the perceived [or real] threat of homeostasis.

Stressors can pop up in physical or emotional ways, but there are two really important factors when it comes to determining just how any one stressor is going to affect you: the intensity & chronicity.

When any one stressor exceeds your threshold [& that is key; it’s your threshold, not anyone else’s] in either how intense the stressor is or how long you have been experiencing it, your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis becomes compromised. This is when we really start to feel the symptoms of stress.

The different kinds of stress

Before I talk about the stress response itself, I want to talk a bit about the different kinds of stress. The science/medical world likes to break things down into categories, so that’s what I’ll do here.

  1. Eustress -- otherwise known as the good stress, eustress is the natural & healthy stress that keeps us moving and going forward day-to-day. Things like moving, getting married, and job promotions are all considered to be eustressors.

  2. Distress -- otherwise known as bad stress, distress are the stressful moments we don’t like and that don’t really serve us. The death of a loved one, a serious medical diagnosis, or the medical diagnosis of a loved one can all be distressors.

While making the distinction between eustress & distress is good, what actually matters more is the duration of the stressor. Our bodies are really well adapted to handle acute stress. The real challenge comes in when that acute stress becomes chronic. Our bodies need time to process all the information & for the hormones to re-regulate in our bodies to bring us back to homeostasis.

The stress response

Hazarding a guess here, but I am assuming you have heard of the fight or flight response. This is the body’s way of protecting you from an acute, intense stressful event. The stress response is designed to prepare you to either physically fight the stressor away or to run away from it, ie: fight or flight.

In the fight or flight response, your heart rate & blood pressure increase, your digestion slows and more blood is routed to the brain & muscles in order for you to be able to fight or flee.

In more recent years, a third stress response has come to light and that is the freeze response. First seen in prey animals, the freeze response most commonly happens when your brain senses that there is no safe & viable way out of the stressful event. In humans, this is seen quite often in rape & abuse victims.

And in even more recent years, there is a development of a fourth stress response in the body known as feigning. [NB: until recently, this was known as the fawn response, but that terminology is on its way out. Click here to learn why].

The feign response is adaptive. For some, when presented with a stressor or conflict, the immediate response is to appease the person speaking and undermine your side of the situation. This comes from the person wanting to people-please all the time. Those that exhibit a feign response often grow up in abusive households/situations.

Now that we know how the four ways the stress response looks externally, let’s look at what is going on in your body when you are faced with a stressor.

The two main physiological events that happen in the body when undergoing a stress reaction is the increase in oxygen that floods into the muscles, heart & brain. This extra oxygen is accompanied by glucose, which is the body’s main source of fuel. The diameter of the blood vessels also increases, especially in the heart & lungs. This allows for your respiration rate to rise to prepare you for action. These are governed by a subsection of the central nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system.

Other events that happen in the body with a stress reaction include:

  • Increase in metabolism and the detoxification of metabolic byproducts & foreign substances

  • Some level of immunosuppression

There are several different chemicals that are released in our bodies to help mediate this stress response. The main two categories of hormones that are released are glucocorticoids [mainly cortisol] and catecholamines [mainly adrenaline & noradrenaline].

Cortisol is the body’s most well known stress hormone. It has a very important role in increasing the amount of glucose in the body. Cortisol increases the enzymes used to make protein into glucose, the brain’s main fuel source. Cortisol also increases glucose storage in the liver which allows for adrenaline & noradrenaline to swoop in and use up those glycogen stores to create energy.

Cortisol secretion also promotes the mobilization of fatty acids from fat cells which can also be used for energy. This mainly comes into play if/when we are deprived of food; the body shifts from using free glucose as energy to using fatty acids as energy. This helps us conserve our body’s glucose.

Managing the stress response

Now that we know what the stress response entails, I bet you are wondering what things you can do at home to manage your stress levels. I am going to outline three of my favourites here, but there are more ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system like being creative, playing with a child/animal, or repeating a self-affirming mantra to yourself.

Diaphragmatic breathing

You may have heard this before, but diaphragmatic breathing, otherwise known as belly breathing, is the number one quickest way to decrease your stress. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of the central nervous system which slows down your heart rate and promotes digestion & reproduction.

Diaphragmatic breathing is easy to do and can be done anywhere which is part of what makes it such a useful & accessible tool for stress management.

Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest. Take slow, controlled deep breaths in and focus on pushing your belly out in front of you. That is it. That is diaphragmatic breathing. I encourage people to breathe this way all the time, but if that isn’t you, then I encourage you to give this method of breathing a go every time you run into a stressful situation. Close your eyes & breathe deeply for a minute.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a technique designed to counteract the muscle soreness & tension that occurs when we are stressed. In order to practice PMR, all you have to do is consciously contract a muscle [or group of muscles] hold for a moment, and then relax the muscles. As you go through this sequential contraction & relaxation of muscle groups, other forms of relaxation inherently happen. Heart & respiratory rate slow, blood vessels in the arms and legs dilate to increase blood flow creating a feeling of warm & calm.

I want to go through what PMR for a few different areas would look like, but before I do, just a couple of general notes:

  • Start with either the feet or the hands and work in towards the middle

  • You can do this laying down or sitting up

  • Start with ~3 deep belly breaths before getting into the PMR itself and continue to breathe through the diaphragm throughout

  • For each muscle group/body part, you want to squeeze and hold the muscle for 10 seconds, relax and then take note of how the area feels afterwards. Then move on to the next body part

PMR examples:

  • Hand: make a fist

  • Arm: a biceps curl

  • Foot: toes pointing downwards

  • Calf muscle: toes pointing upward

  • Thighs & butt: squeeze as hard as you can

  • Chest: take a deep breath in and hold for 10s


Earlier in the blog I talked about eustressors. Well exercise is one of them. Exercise places stress on the physical body while at the same time improving mental health & stress.

Consistent exercise reduces the body’s overall levels of cortisol & increases its levels of endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relief chemicals and function in the same way as an opioid would. Endorphins are also key in enhancing mood, which is why Elle Woods always says: “exercise makes people happy and happy people just don’t kill!” It is the endorphins that give us the runner’s high.

Consistent exercise also changes your body’s fat & muscle composition. For most, these changes are seen as positive which increases your self esteem & your confidence and decreases your overall stress levels. A positive self-image is beneficial for the mind.

Exercise can also be done in social settings which adds a level of benefit to the exercise. Being around people you enjoy while doing activities you enjoy is a great way to take your mind off stressful events and the benefits last long after the exercise is done.

The best part about using exercise as a stress reliever? All exercise functions in the same way in terms of stress management. The most important part about the exercises that you are doing is that you are moving and that you enjoy it.

Final thoughts

Stress is something we all live with daily. And for good reason -- we need it to function. The key to developing a healthy stress response is developing a plan to prevent things from becoming chronic. Managing your stress comes down to activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Find what you enjoy & go with it!

If you are looking for a customized way to help deal with your stress & the aches and pains that come along with it, I invite you to book a free 10 minute call with me where we can discuss options on how I can help you in my office.

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