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Why do we get stressed?

Written by: CABA
Published on: 4 Feb 2019

We all get stressed from time to time. A certain amount of stress can be useful but if you feel constantly overwhelmed this can lead to health problems. This article will look at the causes of stress and provide some tips on how to increase your resilience.

You probably know the feeling of being stressed out all too well. Your breathing quickens, your heart starts to pound, your mouth feels dry, your muscles feel tense, your hands feel cold yet sweaty.

Situations we find stressful can vary widely from person to person as some of us are more susceptible to the effects of stress than others.

These situations trigger the release of stress hormones that are responsible for the way you feel when stressed. This is called the stress response, or the fight or-flight response.

Survival mechanism

The term fight or flight was first used by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon back in the early 1900s. It describes the body's automatic response to danger which is thought to have evolved as a way of helping humans react quickly to life-threatening situations.

This response is triggered so fast you won't have time to think about it. Here's how it works:

Step 1

In the presence of danger, the eyes and/or ears send information to the area of the brain involved in emotional processing, called the amygdala. The amygdala sends a distress signal to a tiny area at the base of the brain called the hypothalamus, which communicates with the body via the nervous system.

Step 2

The hypothalamus activates the part of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This then sends signals to the adrenal glands, which respond by producing hormones including adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream. As these hormones circulate through the body they bring about a range of physiological changes, such as:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Faster breathing rate
  • Increase in mental alertness
  • Decreased saliva production
  • Increased sweating
  • Sharpening of senses such as sight and hearing
  • Increased energy (caused by the release of sugars and fats into the muscles)
  • Reduced urination

Step 3

If the brain perceives the threat as ongoing the hypothalamus releases more hormones. These act on the adrenal glands, making them release more cortisol and leaving the body in a continued high state of alertness.

Step 4

When the brain perceives the threat as having passed, cortisol levels fall and the hypothalamus activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which dampens the stress response. 

Long-term effects

Though the threats we encounter these days are usually very different from those faced by our prehistoric ancestors, the stress response is still useful as it boosts our awareness in stressful situations and helps us cope with emergencies.

If your fight-or-flight response is triggered too often and for too long, the constant release of stress hormones in your body can lead to one or more of the health problems associated with chronic stress. These include digestive issues, impaired resistance to colds and other infections, heart disease, sleep difficulties, weight gain, anxiety and depression.

While it's unlikely you'll be able to remove stress from your life entirely, there are steps you can take care of your physical and emotional wellbeing. Try to make your lifestyle as healthy as possible by:

Eating well

Eat a healthy balanced diet. Have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day and try to limit how much sugar you eat.

Sleeping well

Getting a good night's sleep (read our Good sleep guide for pointers).

Learning how to relax

Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing or whatever helps you feel calm. Our guide to Beginners Yoga can help you get started and also includes a breathing practice you can try.

Move more

Taking regular exercise can help reduce the build-up of stress hormones in the body.

Improve your resilience

Increasing your resilience can help you to cope with stressful situations. Learn how to be more resilient by reading our article Resilience: staying calm in difficult times.

How CABA can help

We're here whenever you need help, support or information that could help improve your wellbeing. Our services are free for ICAEW members, ACA students and their families.

For advice and information call us on +44 (0) 1788 556 366, email, complete our online form or chat to us online.