What Is Stress, And What Is Happening In Our Bodies When We Feel Stressed?

Question: What is stress, and what is happening in our bodies when we feel stressed?

Answer: Stress is two things. Anything that poses a challenge or a threat to our well-being is a stress. Stresses can be positive or negative. It could be something like a work deadline, having to give a public speech. It could also be something like entering a marriage, or a new relationship or changing jobs.

Then we also have the way that we respond to that challenge -- that's also called stress. And our response to that challenge has a physiological component which basically affects our body. When we're in the face of a challenge or a threat, our body mobilizes all of our resources so that we can protect ourselves. So for example, if you're in the woods and you're walking and 20 yards away from you there's a bear, you want your body to mobilize all of its resources so that you have enough energy to either run away from that bear, or fight that bear.

And that's what we call our body's fight-or-flight response -- it's the activation of our body's sympathetic nervous system in reaction to an alarm or to a stress. What happens when our fight-or-flight response is activated, is that our cardiovascular system is activated, our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up, and that's to give us the energy that we need to protect ourselves in this situation.

Our breathing rate can also go up, our digestion ceases, our immune functioning decreases, and that's because those things aren't really important if we're working on protecting ourselves in an immediate situation. Those are some of the things that happen to our body during stress.

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