Stress Awareness Month: What to know about stress

April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress is a feeling we are all aware of, but what do we know about how it can affect us and how we can manage it?

What is stress?

Believe it or not, stress isn’t all ‘bad’. It has kept humankind alive all these years as it's essentially a natural human response to feeling threatened.
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and turns on its ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals, such as adrenaline. The body does this to prepare itself for physical action. This causes several reactions, such as blood being diverted to muscles and shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.

What happens when we feel stressed?

The release of hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine), cortisol, and norepinephrine is what makes us react to dangerous situations. For example, this could be slamming on the brakes, swerving to avoid a crash, or reaching for the cricket bat if we hear a noise at night.

Adrenaline prepares the body to fight or flee from danger by increasing blood circulation and breathing. Adrenaline is not only released when there is real danger around but also during moments of emotional stress. This can include taking an exam or test, watching a scary movie, speaking in public, going on a date, or doing an extreme sport like skydiving.

We’ve all heard of an ‘adrenaline rush’ and we roughly know what it is and when we would expect to experience one - sky diving or driving in a fast race car, for example.
Here are some of the very familiar and recognisable symptoms:

  • A pounding heart
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Feeling shaky or nervous
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased ability to run faster or lift heavy objects

But do you know what is happening in your body at this time?

Adrenaline works by stimulating a part of the nervous system that regulates the body's unconscious actions. It is released at times of physical and emotional stress by the adrenal glands, which are situated near the kidneys. When adrenaline is released, it affects the body in six key ways:

  • Air passages widen to provide muscles with the oxygen they need to either fight or flee from danger.
  • Blood vessels narrow to redirect blood flow to major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs.
  • The heart rate speeds up and the heart contracts more forcefully so more oxygen is delivered to muscles and tissues.
  • The liver releases blood sugar (glucose), which provides the body with energy.
  • The pupils of your eyes dilate so you can see more clearly, even in the dark.
  • The body’s ability to feel pain is reduced to allow you to continue fighting or fleeing, even if you are injured.

When stress is bad for us

While this response is crucial to survival, over-exposure to adrenaline can be damaging to a person's health. Complications arise when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; and this can be a major hindrance in our work/school and home lives. And, if we maintain a state of stress for prolonged periods, it can be detrimental to our health.

The result of having elevated cortisol levels can be an increase in sugar and blood pressure levels; these can lead to further health issues such as:

  • Weight gain
  • Digestive problems
  • Chronic headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Anxiety and depression

When should we fight and when should we flee?

When your body goes into a state of stress, it’s common to feel agitated and aggressive toward others; this can be due to the natural reaction of ‘fight’. Whilst this can be a helpful reaction to ward off predators, in other situations it can negatively affect relationships and ruin reputations.

Conversely, the ‘flight’ reaction isn’t always right either. Avoiding our stressors, and removing ourselves from the situation instead of tackling it can save our lives if we find ourselves in dangerous surroundings. However, in everyday life, this instinct could lead to a stressful situation escalating, only serving to increase our stress levels when we realise that the stressor isn’t going away and we need to face it. It’s about finding the right balance.

There is also a lesser-known third mode - freeze. For some people, the energy mobilised by the perceived threat gets ‘locked’ into the nervous system and we ‘freeze’. We can see this more clearly in our breathing. For example, holding our breath and shallow breathing are both forms of ‘freezing’. The occasional deep sigh you may hear is the nervous system catching up on its oxygen intake.

Causes of stress and how to destress

There are many causes of stress in modern life; work, school, home life, relationships, raising children, and financial issues are common stressors. Add into the mix a neuro difference and these stressors could be even more exaggerated daily.

Here are a few ideas on how you can destress:

  • Exercise - movement can give you more mental clarity, make you feel better and help with emotional intensity. On a physical note, being active may use up some of that adrenaline effectively ensuring you feel calmer afterward.
  • Connect with people - a good support network of friends and family can help you unwind and it can also help to talk through some of your stresses with a willing listener.
  • Take some ‘me time’ - with such little precious downtime it’s easy to forget to take some time for yourself; make time for yourself whether that’s time socialising, exercising, watching TV, reading, or getting pampered.
  • Be positive - look for the positives and practice gratitude. It may help you to write down 3 things that went well each day. Journaling can be a great way of appreciating the little things and focusing on what you’re grateful for.
  • Help others - evidence has proven that those who help others (e.g., volunteering or community work) become more resilient. Focusing on helping others can distract you from your stress and often helps to see things differently.
  • And lastly, avoid unhealthy habits - don’t turn to alcohol, caffeine, or smoking to help you cope with stress. These crutches won’t solve your problems and will only lead to new ones later, even if they feel like a temporary fix.

Shannon uses Inspiration to cope with her panic anxiety disorder, calling it an immediate stress reliever. Read her case study here: "My panic attacks went away with Inspiration" (