What are the physical effects of stress?

Physical Effects of Acute Stress

Many people in the workforce may feel like this poor schemp.
Many people in the workforce may feel like this poor schemp.
Michael Blann/Getty Images

Acute stress is an immediate reaction to a stressful situation. It could mean that you're in danger, you've just had a work deadline moved up, your boss is in your face yelling at you, or you and your spouse have had a blowout. When you get stressed out suddenly, a chain reaction occurs in your body. First, your hypothalamus is activated. It's located above the brain stem and is responsible for linking your nervous system (your body's communicator) to your endocrine system (a group of organs that release hormones) by way of the pituitary gland. This also tells the sympathetic nervous system to get going.

This part of your nervous system controls what you may know as the fight-or-flight response. It's basically your body's way of dealing with acute stress.

If your boss is in your face yelling at you, you'll be inclined to either fight back or get the heck out of there. The same held true for the cavemen when they faced a wooly mammoth, and the same will hold true for the future man when faced with a Martian's laser gun. Maybe that's a reach, but you get the point -- humans have always had the sympathetic system to deal with immediate stressors.

The physical effects of this kind of immediate stress range from an increased heartbeat to shallow breathing. This is because there's a greater flow of oxygen into the body. Your pupils will dilate to allow more light to enter your eye. All of these things happen because of a release of adrenaline -- the body's main stress hormone. There's also a release of cortisol, another stress hormone, by the adrenal gland. Cortisol will jack up your blood pressure and blood sugar. Your liver will begin to manufacture some glucose to provide you with extra energy as well. After your stress goes away you may feel a physical crash -- this is because of the extra glucose you've burned off. It essentially leaves you with a low supply of blood sugar, like when you haven't had anything to eat all day.

The diarrhea we talked about on the previous page comes about because stress can make the bowels move faster. When your bowels are moving rapidly, there's less time for water to be reabsorbed into your body and just like that, you suddenly have watery stools. Thanks, stress!

The key to combating acute stress is to reach a point of homeostasis, which is a fancy way of saying equilibrium, or "chilled out." Your blood pressure and blood sugar will return to its normal state, as will your heart rate and pupils. There are several ways to regulate acute stress:

  • Recognize exactly what's stressing you out.
  • Try to leave the stressful situation if possible.
  • Go for a quick jog or walk if you can.
  • Take three to five deep breaths.
  • Practice relaxation exercises like meditation or yoga.

All of these techniques can help you deal with immediate acute stress. And of course there's the old standby that may seem trite, but actually works -- count to 10.