How Stress Affects the Mind & Body

How stress affects mind & body - sign with arrows pointing to stress and more stress

People often talk about stress and feeling stressed out. The combination of multiple work, family, and other commitments can start to feel like they’re crushing us.

So what exactly is stress? It occurs when strain is placed on the body in a way that disrupts its normal balance and functioning. The source can be internal or external, and it can be exerted psychologically or physiologically.

Effects of stress

Stressors can range from major life events to low-level stressors that are present in the background on an ongoing basis.  Sometimes stress is a good thing; when you’re facing a hungry lion, you don’t want to be relaxed. However, when stress is unremitting, it can do some serious damage.

stress and performance chart
Yerkes and Dodson, Hebbian [CC0]

When it comes to memory, there’s sort of a Goldilocks effect with stress; some stress can improve memory function, whereas too much stress impairs memory. During stressful events, the brain is more likely to remember details that would help to avoid putting us in the same sort of situation again.

The effects of intense and prolonged stress are particularly significant in children. Exposure to abuse and conflict can disrupt the ability to regulate emotions and develop healthy attachments and intimacy. Learning difficulties and poor school performance may result, and there may be increased antisocial behaviour, depression, and anxiety.

Stressors in the form of loss, humiliation, or danger can increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. The cumulative effect of different kinds of stress can produce a synergistic increase in the risk of mental disorders (sort of a 1+1=3).

Physiological effects

Part of the initial response to stress comes from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, i.e. the fight or flight response. This involves the release of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is another pathway used by the brain to initiate the stress response. The hypothalamus, which acts as a control centre, can be triggered by the amygdala. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which then stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. In the short term, cortisol prepares your body to respond to the stressor, but longer-term dysregulation of the HPA axis can have a negative effect.

Short-term effects

In the short term, stress boosts energy levels and sharpens your senses.  Stored sugar in the form of glycogen is released from the liver to fuel your reaction to the stressor. Your heart is pumping, and your airways expand to bring in maximum oxygen. Energy is diverted away from resting functions like digestion and reproductive system function. The hormone rush causes your memory to focus on stressor-related input, leaving less capacity to encode non-stress-related information into memory.

Chronic effects

Chronic stress can contribute to or worsen a number of health conditions, and can keep the HPA axis persistently hyperactivated. Changes in heart rate and blood pressure can occur, and there is an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. As the body becomes exhausted by the ongoing stress response, the immune system weakens.

The gastrointestinal system can be affected, which can be particularly problematic for people with irritable bowel system (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis). Depression and some other mental illnesses appear to have a link to inflammation, although the nature of that link is still being explored.

Reacting to stressors: NUTS

There are four aspects of a stressor that result in the release of stress hormones:

  • Novelty
  • Unpredictability
  • Threat to the ego
  • Sense of control

The acronym for this is, suitably enough, NUTS. The novelty and unpredictability seem obvious enough, but the threats to the ego and sense of control dig a little deeper. For me, lack of control is huge. Not that I’m necessarily a controlling person, but having no control sends me cowering into my cave.

Chronic mental illness stops being novel pretty quickly, but it starts to develop a predictable unpredictability. Threat to the ego? Check. Loss of control? Double check.

Managing stress

The ability to manage stress can be influenced by both personal and environmental factors.  High levels of the personality traits of neuroticism and emotionality can make it more difficult to handle stress. Strong social supports can improve the ability to respond to stress. A study by Wofford found that negative mood patterns, anger/irritability, and low self-esteem tend to increase the physiological response to stress.

A study by Crum and colleagues found that attitudes toward stress influence its emotional and cognitive impacts. Participants who viewed stress as a challenge that could help them grow displayed greater cognitive flexibility than those who viewed stress as a threat.

There’s also a difference between eustress and distress. Eustress is adaptive and helps us to function better. Distress is persistent and does not respond to coping strategies. And what would the opposite of stress be? While relaxation might seem like the obvious answer, resilience is actually more fitting.

Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale

Two psychiatrists developed the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which assigns a score to various different potential stressors (it can be found on Wikipedia). On the high end, the death of a spouse was associated with 100 “life change units.” Marriage was assigned a score of 50, while personal illness/injury was only 3 points higher. Death of a close friend is supposedly easier to adjust to than gaining a new family member, and both are less stressful than marriage. I’ve got to say, I’m not particularly impressed with this scale.

What I find fascinating is what a great example that stress reactions are of the interconnectedness between mind and body.

How does stress affect you?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner. You may also be interested in the post What Is… Eustress vs. Distress


You may also be interested in the post Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness.

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

27 thoughts on “How Stress Affects the Mind & Body”

  1. It’s hard for me to see where the day to day reality of living on the autistic spectrum ends and social anxiety begins, but pretty much anything involving communicating with anyone who isn’t a close relative or close friend is going to involve a lot of stress for me. Even small things like asking for something in a shop, let alone the job interview I have tomorrow!

  2. I have had stress at different degrees this year, as you know. Tiredness has been the big thing for me. But when I blogged about the time how my mum behaved, which took me back to my teens, that was a trigger for me. So I have felt overwhelmed and it’s caught me out. If I wasn’t already feeling at my limit, this proved me wrong and I was now at my breaking point.
    I have had time off all this week from work, which I arranged Friday. I knew once my weekend came, I would crash and have no energy. And I did. But today, although I am tired, I am not feeling to the extent since the weekend. So touch wood, I may be recovering from this one better than previous ones where I have crashed.

    I have avoided my mum since the upset of last week and made it clear I won’t see her until Saturday for a couple of hours, or three, at hers. I had to remind her that today in a text, when she asked if she could come up. I am not seeing her till Saturday. I need to focus on me till then.

      1. It’s be long coming Ashley. But I know from that day and the constant tension since, it’s done me and I am done. I am not giving anymore caring duties to the extent I have done and so I hope mum goes down the route of assisted living.

  3. Stress is usually in the same category of control. Being that I used to be such a control freak, to acceptance of not having control over everything has grown easier over time.
    However, when I am under extreme stress, a migraine is soon to follow… I do the same thing… I cower down and become even more introverted than normal. (If there is such a thing).

  4. Excellent Post! I was privy to most of the info thanks to 14 years in therapy. Surprise! It was the first time I’d seen the acronym NUTS. It’s good that mental health issues have been and continue to be addressed in recent years. TBT and friends thought my mother was crazy a.k.a strange. A shame she missed out on so much of life and I missed out on normal mother-daughter time.

  5. What a fascinating post! In grad school, I used to get sick ALL the time. I thought it was stress-related, but didn’t know how – now I understand that it was because my body was continuously responding to stress!!

  6. Brilliantly written, a lot of this information lines up with what Ive been researching when it comes to OCD. OCD definitly causes distress, it is not adaptable at all!

  7. This is really a really great post, as I am also fascinated by how the mind and the body interact with each other. Contrary to some prominent historical figures like Descartes, I am convinced that the mind and the body are intertwined and are not distinct entities, which is a view known as monism. I think that the field of healthy psychology provides great evidence for this, where stressful thoughts associated with the soul actually do have an impact on the body, much like what you talk about in your article with stress and the HPA axis. I think it is so great that you are sharing this with your audience. Thanks for sharing your post!

  8. This is such an amazing and informative post – your posts always seem to educate me about something or other! Stress can have such a negative affect on the body and mind, and that’s when it’s time to step back and give yourself a break. The human body is only made to take and handle so much, and we should never try to give it more than it can handle.

  9. I really enjoyed the read. The NUTS acronym was quite informative. It gives one a bit of a more reflective approach to the exact nature and shape of one’s own stress. I may use some of that idea for a writing of mine. Thank you for the inspiration.

  10. Thanks for sharing. Very interesting. The blog made me think of a recent article I was reading. It gave an example…it is easier to put out a small fire than to extinguish a raging inferno. So, small doses of stress are easier to control than large amounts of stress that have built up over a period of time.
    I find the Bible helps reduce stress in a wonderful way by reassuring me that Jehovah God “ is very tender in affection and merciful”- James 5:11

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