How The Body Copes And Responds To Stress

Stressed man

Selye makes clear in his findings from extensive research on the effects of stress on the immune system that, without appropriate defence against things that stimulate our body out of homeostasis, known as stressors, the body will take on significant impact with potentially fatal consequences if not managed appropriately.

Given that stress is an unavoidable part of life, it is vital that a person develops a way to deal with stressors. One way to begin to manage stress is to adopt a more accepting approach to stress and to understand the effects stress has on the body and its ability to function. By understanding the impact of stress, it can act as a motivation to continually work on and develop relaxing practices and defences to stress.

All life events can cause some stress, the good and the bad. For example, preparing for academic and professional qualifications can cause people a great deal of stress, but with potentially life changing results which most people would say are worth the psychological endurance they require. Furthermore, the career of our dreams may cause us high levels of stress that is only likely to increase as do our responsibilities; the option to quit our job may not be a realistic one, so it is necessary that the individual alters their outlook, manages their time better or simply ensures that there is a balance between stress and relaxation.

Where possible, excessive or unnecessary stress should be avoided. This will require the ability to reason and be realistic with oneself about what is manageable. To push oneself to take on the same amount, or more stress than what we perceive other people are coping with is often an unproductive strategy. The stressor is the stimulus prompting a reaction which is calling for the need for adaption, the stress is the response we make to the situation. Selye recommends measuring stress through a series of factors, that are tailored to the individual, and where necessary adapt so that stressors are minimised.

The way that the body responds to stress is mostly unknown outside professional practice; only the general physiological reactions such as heightened heartbeat, shallow breathing and perspiration that most people experience once they are faced with a challenging situation.

Often it is only when the effects of stress over long periods of time manifest itself into disease or serious physical or psychological disorders will lead a person to realise that they are suffering with considerable stress and must put more thought into their ability to adapt.

The extent of physical and psychological challenges that exist within a social context, therein lies individual social status. The central nervous system administers and responds to challenges based on genetic predispositions, such as mental health conditions, developmental maturity and how a person has been taught to handle challenges, either through education or behaviour modelling. For example, if a child has witnessed their parents respond to challenges with aggression, or demonstrated fear at certain situations, it is likely the child will grow up to respond in a similar way. Furthermore, factors such as socioeconomic status, gender and age are significant elements. It is not to say that those who have a higher socioeconomic status, or a specific age or gender deal with less stressors, however it is likely they will be confronted with different situations they deem challenging and respond in a way they consider effective.

What Selye defines as stress is what he refers to as a ‘high cost response’ to a perceived threatening situation, which would be to respond using aggression, maximising physiological arousal and require energy; this is opposed to a ‘low cost response’ which is generally to either ignore or accept the situation, or deem it unthreatening. If a high cost response is ignored or overpowered it can lead to an extended period of aggression, or a sense of helplessness whereby future responses may become unachievable, as it has been learnt it yields no results and is simply a waste of energy.

All responses to perceived threats and challenges, either vigilance, helplessness or aggression have biological equivalents which aid psychological processing of the incident and stimulation experienced. The biological responses are supplemented by neural and neuroendocrine responses that impact the immune system, cardiovascular systems and adipose tissue and muscle. If the body is continually faced with real or perceived threatening situations and met with high cost responses it can lead to allostatic load which, over time can significantly increase the risk of pathology and disease. 

As it is impossible to be fully conscious of all the complex intricate processes that occur throughout the body when we are faced with stressors, it therefore means it is impossible to know when our body is close to reaching it’s limit of resistance and begins to manifest itself into psychological and physiological conditions. For this reason it is vital that people recognise the importance of stress management and value the importance of prevention, rather than depending on treatment.

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to find the right help for any form of mental health issue, including stress, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).



  1. – accessed 11/01/2020
  2. McEwen, Bruce S., and Eliot Stellar. “Stress and the individual: mechanisms leading to disease.” Archives of internal medicine 153, no. 18 (1993): 2093-2101. 

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