MH@H Mental Health

How Stress Affects the Mind and Body

How stress affects mind and body – signposts 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.

Part of the initial response 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 HPA Axis

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 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

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.

One theory proposed two types of stress: 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 a more fitting.

What I find fascinating is what a great example this is of the interconnectedness between mind and body. For me, at least, stress feels very mental with a side of physical, but it’s actually the body that’s really kicking it into high gear.

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.

How does stress affect you?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


COVID-19/mental health coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.

33 thoughts on “How Stress Affects the Mind and 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 brilliant blog post! Very well researched or knowledge-based! I can definitely see how you’re publishing articles all over the internet!!

    Yeah, when I’m overwhelmed from too much stuff happening, I get earaches, extreme tension in my shoulders (versus the regular tension that never leaves my shoulders), loss of good posture, and ear pain from my eyeglasses pushing down on my ears (different from the actual earaches inside my ears). I’ve only recently noticed these things, which means I never made the connection before to stress, or I’ve been more stressed out lately. Who knows?

    Another thing I’d love to see you write about (if you haven’t yet, and assuming this is a thing) is the link between massive stress and the onset of illness. Like how it can trigger an underlying mental illness, or something?

  6. 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!!

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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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