How does stress occur?

Kirsi Bhasin
Nutrition & Dietetics

Stress is your body’s response to events that make you feel threatened. When you sense danger—whether real or imagined—the body’s defenses are activated in a rapid, automatic response known as the “fight or flight” reaction, or the stress response. During this time, your body releases stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline, which cause your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tighten, your blood pressure to rise, your breathing to quicken, and your senses to become sharper, all in order to prepare you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. Some stress is good, for example, when the car in front of you stops unexpectedly, and you instinctively slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. But when stress starts to occur without direction, it can become a serious problem for both your physical and psychological health.

Unfortunately for us, stress can be caused by a number of factors. Chemical stress (such as diet), emotional stress (such as loss of a loved one, nervousness, etc.), mental stress (negative outlooks, racing thoughts), and physical stress can all take a toll on our bodies and our minds. However, identifying what causes our stress is the first step to managing that stress. So try keeping a journal of how you feel throughout the day; you may start to notice patterns in your behavior that lead to stress.

Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgery
Stress occurs when you perceive danger in the form of stress from any source (a big deadline, an angry boss, financial woes, mean girls), your brain releases hormones that travel through the blood to the adrenal glands. These little stress hot spots sit on top of your kidneys and release two stress hormones that act on your entire body.

When the adrenal glands release adrenaline, you are instantly ready to fight or run. Your heart pounds to supply your muscles with blood, your bronchial (lung) tubes dilate to bring in more oxygen, and your brain becomes more alert to assimilate and process new information. At the same time, the adrenal glands emit cortisol to release fat and glucose into the bloodstream to fuel your flight. This is a perfect system in the short term.

Trouble develops during chronic stress as cortisol levels remain high in the body. Now your body goes into survival mode and begins to store as much energy as it can for future fights. Our adrenal glands don't know that our stress is coming from our boss, not from running away from some angry boar (an angry bore, perhaps) so they continue to prepare you for the worst. This energy storage overdrive leads to metabolic disruption, muscle breakdown, high blood sugar, and belly fat storage. Chronic stress makes you fat, which just adds to your already stressed-out life.
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Dr. Vonda Wright's Guide to Thrive: 4 Steps to Body, Brains, and Bliss

Dr. Wright unfolds her Guide to Thrive by preparing readers for six remarkable months of body, brains, and bliss transformation, using her framework of the four practical steps. As a scientist and...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.