Stress.....what is the real effect on the body

October 15, 2018



" His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.....There's vomit on his sweater already: Mom's spaghetti...."  


You may or may not be familiar with this MNM song " Lose Yourself", but it kind of explains pretty accurately the stress response in the body.  

You know those moments when your heart begins to race, your face flushes, your palms are sweaty, you may feel nauseous or need to go to the bathroom.....a threat has been identified, the alarm has sounded, and the body’s defences are on!    This is our body's natural response to stress, the sympathetic nervous system has just fired up getting ready move into battle stations…the good news is it means the body's internal alarm system is working, however long term staying in this state can be bad for our health. 


Stress can be positive. Positive stress motivates us; it focuses our energy and feels exciting. The body rises to a challenge and our performance improves. Positive stress is usually fleeting, and while it causes us to experience the same physical sensations as those generated by negative stress (distress), they are less damaging.

Feeling stressed from time to time is nothing bad. It can be a sign that our body is helping us to perform at our best. It is only when we feel stressed constantly – negative stress – that problems may arise.


This feels unpleasant and is perceived as taking us beyond our coping skills. It inhibits our performance, as we are operating from a position of anxiety and fear. The stress reaction releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, that inhibit the neural branching of neurons in the brain and cause atrophy in the area of the brain responsible for developing new brain cells; effectively, our brain is not developing or functioning at its best.

Cortisol also activates the amygdala, the brain’s ‘alarm’ button. All this combines to keep us stuck in fearful thinking. 


When the body identifies a potential threat, the amygdala (the most primitive part of the brain) sounds the alarm and the body releases stress hormones to aid in fight or flight, diverting all resources to this end. Long-term bodily functions such as digestion and reproduction are shut down, and energy is diverted from the higher centres of the brain (the ‘executive’ functions), which require a lot of resources, to the most primitive areas, which focus purely on survival. Therefore, all decision-making now occurs from a place of fear and threat, and is devoid of higher ‘executive’ function.

Whether we categorise something as good or bad stress will vary for each of us, since it is not the stressor itself that causes the problem but rather our perception of it. If we regard something as taxing our resources and beyond our ability to cope, we will perceive it as negative stress. This, in turn, will activate and maintain the body’s threat level and cause the stress reaction to continue.


We often turn to may things to deal with stress that are not so good for the body: overeating, alcohol or drugs (prescription and non prescription) or it begins to affect our sleep, relationships and our ability to work. 


When the calming response (the parasympathetic nervous system) is activated, the heartbeat and breathing slow, muscles relax, and the digestive juices begin flowing again. Have you ever been on a massage table or in a meditation class and your tummy rumbles?  It may not be that you are hungry it could be the parasympathetic nervous system firing up.  

The calming response is designed to promote growth, energy and all the other processes that are needed for our long-term survival and wellbeing. It is the opposite of the stress reaction.

We can learn ways of deliberately activating the calming response the instant we feel stressed, or even to nip stress in the bud if we are aware enough to pick up the early signs, by tuning into our physical sensations. This could be by focusing on the breath, for example, or breathing through the feet on the floor.


In our classes we teach you many ways to calm the mind by focusing on singular things : heartbeat, breath, how the body feels, a visualisation, sound, gentle rocking in the hammocks.... If you have trouble winding your system down come and learn some new strategies at Flow Movement Space.  


Class Timetable can be found from the Classes Tab on our page. 

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