How Do Our Bodies React to Stress, and How Can We Combat It?

Ryver Knight
7 min readJan 19, 2021

Our bodies are complex. There are so many moving parts — signals whizzing through our nervous systems at incredible speeds, oxygen-rich blood being pumped throughout our bodies in just seconds, and an adept immune system to keep it all safe and healthy. Yet this complexity can be disrupted by the simplest of agents.

One of these agents is stress.

You know the feeling. The sudden shot of adrenaline, followed by a raised heart rate and blood pressure. Sweaty palms. Muscles tensed. Feelings of nausea and dizziness. Maybe even a lovely headache to top it all off.

It sucks — a lot.

But the better we get to know stress and how it affects us, the better we’ll be able to deal with it. That’s why, in this lovely (and mostly useless) guide to stress, I explain the basics of what it is and why it happens.

Let’s start with what causes of stress.

Common Causes of Stress

Stress is generally due to relationships (family, friends, spouse), the workplace, or financial pressure.

The following situations can cause a high level of stress in someone’s life:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Getting divorced
  • Personal injury or illness
  • Going to jail
  • Getting fired
  • Getting married

We refer to these as stressors — the instigators of the stress.

There are many different stressors, but the heart of the experience is the same. Stress almost always involves:

  • Impossibly high expectations from others,
  • a tremendous feeling of responsibility (usually coupled with an incredible sense of loss of control),


  • constant, varied interruptions while trying to carry on a routine.

This results in the physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral symptoms of stress.

Symptoms of Stress

Physical symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • General aches and pains
  • Muscle tension in face, neck and shoulders (e.g. teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching)
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Acne
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive Issues (e.g. indigestion, acid reflux symptoms)
  • Loss of libido
  • Problems sleeping

Cognitive and emotional symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of depression or anxiety
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Lack of focus
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Issues with memory and organization
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Negative and anxious thoughts

And behavioral symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Appetite changes (either eating too little or too much)
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g. drinking, drugs)
  • Nervous habits (e.g. biting nails)
  • Straining relationships with others (usually due to irritability)
  • Increased cynicism and loss of trust

These are the common symptoms of stress, but this list does not reflect the situation’s entirety. Different factors (socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, gender) affect which symptoms people experience and the severity of those symptoms. Social scientists have tried to develop a way to measure stress (e.g. The Holmes and Rahe Scale), but it’s not so simple.

For example, while personal injury or illness may be incredibly stressful for one person, it may be only mildly stressful for the other, even if they have the same sickness. Perhaps one person has an unstable financial situation, and the injury/illness hits their bank account harder, causing more stress. Maybe they have more responsibilities at home or work that they now have to neglect to get better. Or perhaps they just have stronger emotional reactions overall. Everyone reacts differently to stress.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop, Fawn, Fatigue, Friend

Ever heard of a “fight or flight” reaction? That’s when your body registers that there’s a threat nearby, and gears itself up to face this danger — or flee it. We call this a stress response or the process of allostasis.

But other responses may occur when facing stress: freeze, flop, fawn, fatigue, and friend.

Freeze is when your body goes into lockdown mode. You are still aware of what’s going on around you, but your body does not wish to confront the danger. Your muscles are taught, ready to spring into action, but they don’t move.

Flop is when your body cannot function anymore due to a stressful situation. This is a more extreme version of the freeze response, in which your body stops responding altogether. Instead of your muscles tensing up for danger, they relax completely and “flop.”

Fawn is when you cope with stress by placating and pleasing others. In extreme examples, we see this in domestic abuse situations, where victims do what the aggressor wishes to increase their chances of survival. Stockholm syndrome is a result of this stress response.

Fatigue is when you look to conserve energy when stressed, a response most commonly expressed by stress-eating. Babies are more likely to respond to stress in this way as well, by taking naps.

(Be)Friend is when you look to friends for help during moments of distress. It’s why we might shout for help from a friend or a bystander when attacked on the streets at night. In a less extreme example, we may call a friend to vent about our shoddy jobs and annoying coworkers.

It is ingrained in our genetic makeup to respond to certain situations in certain ways. Everyone gets stressed sometimes. And much of the time, we aren’t in control of the stressful situation.

Stress responses aren’t inherently wrong. Their purpose is to aid us through difficult and dangerous times. The trouble occurs when our body charges us up with all this energy to get rid of a threat… and then stays there, unused. When this happens repetitively, the stress harms our bodies.

The Devil is in the Details

Earlier, I mentioned that our bodies are complex. I also said that stress could disrupt many mechanisms in our bodies.

Except on the surface, stress doesn’t seem to do that much.

I mean, yeah, you had those weird aches all over your body. And a bad case of indigestion. And you felt a bit dizzy.

But the sensation went away after a while. No harm was done… right?

Well, it isn’t that easy. Studies have shown in most cases, stress and its harmful effects have a dose-response relationship. As your “dose” of stress goes up and down, so do the harmful effects. The more frequently you experience stress, the more damaging effects you will feel.

The more frequently you experience stress, the more damaging effects you will feel.

When you’re stressed, many components of your mind and body are disturbed, such as:

  • Emotional dysregulation and psychiatric disturbances
  • Cognitive decline
  • Central nervous system (CNS) disturbances
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Skin conditions
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • A weakened immune system
  • Strain on the musculoskeletal system
  • Reproductive system disruptions

Dealing With Stress

Unfortunately, in the efficiency-driven world we live in today, it is difficult to deal with stress positively. Many people go through life paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot afford time off work to relax. But sometimes, just taking a deep breath can help center yourself.

Here are some simple tips on stress management:

  • Reduce stressors. Cut out optional tasks to give yourself more time to relax. Pausing some of your personal goals may help make time for the work you need to do or the time you need to recharge.
  • Plan your day. Time management and organization can help you retain a sense of control over your life. If you’re generally cluttered, maybe whipping up a quick to-do list might bring order to your day.
  • Learn to relax. Self-care is essential, even if it’s just taking five minutes off work to reflect on what’s going on in your life. Start a journal, learn to meditate, or download a self-care app.
  • Practice honest and open communication. With friends and family when something is wrong, and with the people causing stress in your life. If you’re in a situation where you don’t feel that’s possible, consider talking to a professional.
  • Modify your lifestyle. Smoking, excess drinking, drugs, and unhealthy eating can exacerbate the negative feelings you are already experiencing. That doesn’t mean you have to become a health whiz — merely recognizing the signals your body gives you when you’re engaging in unhealthy behavior can bring drastic changes to your mood.
  • Exercise. This may help boost your self-esteem and overall feelings of well-being and combat the adverse effects of stress.

These are common ways to cut down on stress levels, but not the only ones. Experiment with different coping mechanisms, and you’ll eventually find the ones that work for you.

Stress is inevitable — but coping healthily afterwards is pertinent to a healthy mind. With the right encouragement from the right places, we all have the power to combat stress. We all can take back control of our lives. And we all are capable of finding happiness.

“It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

— Hans Selye

With that, I conclude this guide to stress. Have an amazing (and hopefully stress-free) day!



Ryver Knight

Student by day, YA fantasy author by night. Obsessed with the space between dreams and reality. In love with coffee, awesome adventures, and epic music.