What happens in the body when you're stressed?

Stress is unique to every individual, and it’s something we all cope with differently - but one consistent truth is that it’s an unavoidable part of life. From deadlines and work responsibilities to navigating the after-effects of a global pandemic, the stressors of life range from everyday triggers to life-changing events - and they all have an impact on the body in some way.

A man staring off into distance at the beach

Fight or flight

Your fight or flight response is a type of stress response that helps your body react to any perceived danger. It triggers a cascade of stress hormones that influence the rest of the body, helping you rise to the challenge of any perceived threat. This response is a survival mechanism that once kept humans safe from legitimate dangers as we evolved (think, running from a saber tooth tiger). Although we’re not faced with those same dangers today, we are exposed to constant modern-day stressors that our body perceives to be just as threatening. From slamming on the brakes when a car in front of you suddenly stops, to feeling worried about your kids – a heightened perception of stress of any kind can trigger your fight or flight response and result in these same physiological effects.

Your fight or flight response is often initiated by either a psychological fear, or the consistent exposure to stress overtime. You may find that you’ve had a negative experience that you now associate with a particular situation, or that your sympathetic nervous system is simply overreactive as result of continuous stress in your life. Whatever the cause, any time you’re faced with a perceived threat that your body considers to be life threatening, the fight or flight response kicks in. On top of this, our modern world is incredibly fast-paced and sometimes the demands of life can cause us to skip meals, lose sleep and rely on caffeine to function – which only adds to our stress load and confirms to the body that we are in fact, in danger. While we can’t blame our biology for trying to keep us safe – we can gain a better understanding of how to manage our stress response and take action to regulate the stress in our life.

Autonomic nervous system

It all starts in the amygdala, the part of the brain that picks up on fear. When we’re approaching a situation that we perceive to be stressful, the amygdala responds by signaling to the hypothalamus that the body is in real danger. This stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is basically the connection between your nervous system and most of your internal organs. Your ANS has two divisions, sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). While your sympathetic nervous system tends to stimulate organs within the body, your parasympathetic nervous system slows them down. Once your fight or flight response is triggered, it activates your sympathetic nervous system and all resources that are necessary for your immediate survival are prioritized. Your lungs open wide to help you take in more oxygen, blood flows rapidly to your heart and muscles, and your sight and hearing sharpens - while functions like digestion are inhibited. While these mechanisms help the body overcome stress for a short period of time, if your sympathetic nervous system is overactive or prone to stimulation it can cause some not-so-beneficial downstream effects on other areas of the body.

HPA axis and your stress hormones

The HPA-axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is simply the connection between your hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands – and it’s an important part of the cascade that’s signaled when your amygdala senses fear. The HPA-axis effectively governs how you respond to a perceived stressor by releasing hormones that help regulate the body. When your HPA-axis is functioning properly, you’re effectively able to manage stress and return back to your baseline. But if it’s over or under-stimulated from consistent stress exposure, it can become dysregulated and make it difficult for you to cope with everyday stressors that never used to phase you.

Cortisol is your chief stress hormone that’s produced by your adrenal glands and regulated by the HPA-axis. It plays a crucial role in your fight or flight response, but it also has other important functions like maintaining your blood sugar levels, regulating your metabolism and supporting the immune system. In a healthy stress response, cortisol rises to help your body make use of its energy reserves, then returns to its normal levels once the perceived threat has passed. If you’re under constant, prolonged stress – instead of lowering after the stress has passed, cortisol can remain high. Long term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol can negatively impact how you feel each day – from your mood and energy levels, to your sleep and how your sex hormones function.

What happens to your cells when you’re stressed

The hormonal cascade set off by your HPA-axis in response to stress impacts your body as a whole - and your small but mighty cells are affected. Despite their size, your cells generate an enormous amount of energy thanks to your mitochondria – the energy powerhouse that resides within almost every cell. Although it’s a huge undertaking, mitochondria are specialized at providing your cells with the energy to fuel your body. The fight or flight response increases the demands of your body, which puts more pressure on mitochondria to generate more energy. If you’re constantly in a state of fight or flight, your mitochondria will be struggling to meet these increased energy demands.

On top of the stress you may be perceiving externally, there’s also the invisible stress load that your cells face on a daily basis – also known as free radicals. Much like an exhaust from a car engine, free radicals are produced by your mitochondria as a by-product of generating energy for you to function. While they aren’t all bad, the accumulation of free radicals can cause cells to become damaged. Spikes in free radical production can occur through environmental factors, as well as poor diet, smoking, and intense physical activity.

How to help your cells (and therefore, your entire body) adapt to stress

Reducing your stress load is the key to helping your body cope with whatever comes your way. While some stressors are out of your control, the way you take care of your body isn't. In addition to all the great things we’re encouraged to do for our health (getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating more plant based foods, etc.), we believe that stress starts at a cellular level – and to help the body cope with stress, we must support our hardworking cells. When your cells are healthy and working optimally, it creates a positive ripple effect that supports the way you rise up to challenges in your everyday life.

Learn more about cell stress and how MitoQ can help here

How to reduce stress in 5 minutes

Even just a few minutes of practicing these stress management tools each day can improve how your body copes with stress of all kinds.

Read more

8 Foods That Affect Adrenal Health

One of the best ways to manage your adrenal health is through a healthy, balanced diet. Here are the 8 best foods.

Read more