A Guide to Understanding Stress: The Impact of Stress on the Body and Mind


Everyone is familiar with stress!

In fact, as a result of the hustle and bustle of modern life, stress has established itself as an all too familiar companion. Albeit an unwelcome one.

In this article, we'll dip into the interconnected nature of stress by exploring the relationship between our body's responses to stress and how they interact with our mind.

If, like me, you’ve ever felt incapable of managing stress, or overwhelmed by its weight and impact on your life, you’ll benefit from setting aside time to read on.

By understanding these connections between your body and mind and how they relate to stress, you'll be better equipped to manage and reduce the impact of stress.

The result?

Improved overall wellbeing.

What are the physiological impacts of stress?

The role of cortisol and adrenaline

The science behind stress is that when you experience a stressful event, your body automatically prepares for action. It’s your body’s way of protecting you from anything it perceives as being a danger to you.

When stressed, the dynamic duo of cortisol and adrenaline kick into action to orchestrate your body’s readiness to deal with challenges.

Often referred to as the "stress hormones" – they are released into your body, giving you a rush of energy by boosting glucose levels in your blood. They’re a bit like first responders, whose primary role is to prime your body for action when danger strikes.

Stress hormones are your body’s way of ensuring your survival in threatening situations. When faced with stressors, these hormones kickstart a burst of energy to help keep you alive.

In other words, in the unlikely event you’re confronted with a grizzly bear, as seen in an episode of BBC’s Race Across the World, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline.

The release of these stress hormones enable you to either run for your life, or confront the beast with your bare hands (though the latter wouldn’t be recommended!)

Another way to think of these chemical responses to stressful situations is to see them as your body's instant alert system. When faced with any stressful situation, the cortisol and adrenaline surges are designed to sharpen your focus and reflexes so you can get out of danger.

They’re the reason you’re able to brake suddenly when a car cuts in front of you on the motorway, or catch your child mid-fall after they attempt to be a superhero.

The systems in your body affected by stress

It’s important you realise that stress isn't just a momentary state – but that it has the capacity to affect every area of your body. These include your:

  • Cardiovascular system
  • Respiratory system
  • Endocrine system
  • Gastrointestinal system
  • Nervous system
  • Muscular system
  • Reproductive system

Each of these systems in your body are affected by stress, which has the capacity to impact your health in significant ways.

Cardiovascular system: heart-pounding dramas

When stressed, your cardiovascular system activates like the drumroll before a big performance. Your heart rate rapidly increases to redirect blood to your major organs and with this they start to tense ready for action.

Respiratory system: catching your breath

But stress doesn't just activate your heart, but your respiratory system. When stressed, your breathing intensifies with the purpose of increasing oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide. This is why your breathing can feel tight and shallow.

Endocrine system: the hormone takeover

As the stress response is activated, so too is your endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for producing the hormones needed to help you deal with looming danger. Steroid hormones and cortisol come into play here.

Gastrointestinal system: the digestion dance

Also getting its cue from your stress response is the gastrointestinal system. The main role of this system is to digest food, absorb ingested nutrients, and to move food through your bowels to help you get rid of waste products.

Nervous system: sympathetic nerves

Stressful events also activate your sympathetic nervous system. During an emergency, the sympathetic nervous system causes your adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into your bloodstream. It’s also responsible for slowing down less important bodily processes, like digestion, and regulating body temperature.

Musculoskeletal system: tense moments

Stress can also cause substantial muscle tension. When you sense danger, your body will tighten up as a defensive move to ward off potential trouble and guard against potential pain or injury. The tension experienced in your body is its way of ensuring safety and survival.

Reproductive system: loss of libido

When stress becomes chronic it has the potential to impact sexual desire and intimacy. Additionally, it can also affect sperm production and maturation. And for women, it can affect pregnancy and menstruation cycles.

Stress is more than an experience of emotional and mental turbulence, it directly affects everything from your heart rate and breathing, to digestion and sexual reproduction. If unmanaged, stress has the ability to impact every area of your physical life and wellbeing.

What are the psychological impacts of stress?

Your perception will always affect your stress

The activation and response to stress isn't solely about external physical events – or triggers – it's also about how you perceive and interpret those triggers. So key to how you respond to, and manage stress, is your mental assessment of a situation or event.

Your perception of an event, also known as cognitive appraisal, plays a pivotal role in how you relate to stressful triggers. Put differently, the way you evaluate an event can make all the difference to whether it becomes a minor inconvenience or a major cause of stress.

For example, imagine stepping onto a stage to deliver a presentation to a room full of people. Some natural stress responses in this scenario, with the release of cortisol and adrenaline, might include increased heart rate, dry throat, sweaty palms, and possibly brain fog.

However, the level of impact of these bodily responses and your performance, could be managed by your cognitive appraisal of the situation. In other words, whether you interpret (or appraise) the situation as either a threat or an opportunity.

With the latter appraisal, you’ll be more likely to engage your audience and deliver your presentation with greater confidence and clarity. In other words, the intensity of the impact of stressful situations will always be dependent on your perspective.

How you interpret events will shape your response to stressors. In other words, whether you view an event as either a threat or an opportunity will significantly alter your reaction to it.

So, though your stress response may seem ‘instinctual’, it helps to remember that your perception and interpretation of a situation carries substantial influence over its effect.

Stress is like a mind maze

When left unchecked, stress will mess with your mind. And if you’ve ever experienced times when your brain feels like it's going to explode because there’s so much going on inside it, you’ll know what I mean.

Yes, on those occasions when you find yourself overwhelmed with brain clutter, chances are it's because stress is pulling your strings. In fact, stress can affect your mind in several ways including:

  • Memory problems
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor judgement
  • Seeing the negative
  • Overthinking
  • Worry and anxiety

Stress can make a marked difference on how you function day-to-day, so it’s important to pay attention to each.

Memory problems

When stress shows up, don’t be surprised if you start forgetting things. One of the reasons for this is that stress can make it hard to lock new information into your memory because you’re either not paying attention, or simply have too much on your mind.

Unmanaged stress can hijack or impair your memory, on occasions, leaving you frustrated with what can feel like trying to find a needle in a shape shifting haystack.

Lack of concentration

Stress also has the capacity to cloud your thoughts and cause you to lose your ability to concentrate. Frustratingly, it can make your focus flitter away like a butterfly caught in a gust of wind.

When sensing that you’re struggling to focus on tasks, or when concentrating seems like a relentless challenge, it’s more than likely stress is the cause of the problem.

Poor judgement

In addition to your memory and ability to focus, stress also messes with your judgement – your ability to make good decisions. And this can have catastrophic effects.

Worryingly, if you’re not managing stress, it can lead to you questioning your inner judge, filling you with uncertainty and causing you to feel less confident in your ability to make decisions.

Put differently, when you’re stressed, even simple daily decisions can start to feel like a puzzle with missing pieces. And, what was normal, can suddenly begin to feel quite confusing.

Seeing the negative

Where you might have typically been optimistic or good at finding solutions, stress can lead to you seeing the world through blurry lenses. In other words, stress can cause you to view things negatively.

In worst case scenarios it can lead to noticing all the things going wrong, while ignoring any of the good stuff. Where even those closest to you can be seen as villains in your story.

Put another way, if you’re not giving careful consideration to stress management, stress could lead to you filtering everything through a blurry filter, paying attention to the bad and dismissing the good.

Non-stop overthinking

You’ve probably noticed that when stressed, your mind races at speeds you didn't think were possible. When managed, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can be helpful for generating ideas and solutions.

Truth is, stress can take on the role of a thought tornado, picking up what pops into your mind, and spinning your thoughts and ideas faster than you’re able to catch them.

With this in mind, if you find your mind replaying worst-case scenarios, or spiralling with thoughts that aren’t addressing the cause of your stress, it’s probably time to slow things down and get some help.

Anxiety and worry

Worry can become a massive problem when you’re stressed, and in some cases a debilitating one. So recognising when your thoughts are spinning on a loop of “what if” questions, with no off switch, is key.

Stress feeds your internal worry monster, turning your mind into a loop of 'what might go wrong?’ And with the creation of unhelpful loops, comes increased chances of poor mental health.

So, because of the disconcerting nature of the impact of stress on your mind, it’s to your advantage to deal with the issues or problems causing you to feel anxious as quickly as possible.

Don’t overlook the impact of stress on your mind. From glitches in memory to poor situational or relational judgement, it can leave you feeling like you’re walking a maze.

But in understanding how it affects your mind and being intentional about facing and addressing your stressors, you can navigate the twists and turns to emerge stronger on the other side.

What's the body and mind connection?

Stress affects the body and mind 

The relationship between your body and mind is an intricate one. Your body’s signals affect your thoughts, and these thoughts shape your body’s responses in return. And vice versa.

So when thinking about the interplay between your body and mind, it’s important to note where they form a feedback loop. For as your body responds to stress it informs both your mental and emotional states.

In the same way, the way you think and feel influences your hormonal responses. And this interconnection between your physiological and psychological responses, creates a cycle of stress feedback loop.

When preparing for an exam, for example, it would be understandable if your stress levels increased. You can probably think of an occasion when just thinking about a test, caused you to feel stressed or anxious.

And as a result of this thinking, you may have noticed a loss of appetite, or other bodily responses triggered by the release of cortisol and adrenaline.

However, as mentioned previously, the main influence on your confidence or ability to perform, would be your cognitive appraisal of the exam.

The degree to which you’re able to understand and manage the interplay between your bodily responses and how you think and feel, the better you’ll be able to perform.

Understanding the complex interaction between the two can empower you to better leverage your responses. In turn, enhancing your performance regardless of the stressors you face.

Managing and Reducing Stress

Holistic approaches to stress management

Because of the interplay between physiology and psychology, it's essential you get to grips with the idea that stress management involves nurturing both your body and mind.

Also, that stress management isn't just a good idea that’s become popularised by an increased awareness of mental health, but that it’s a fundamental pillar of maintaining your overall wellbeing.

To be clear, stress management isn’t about eradicating stress, as stress will always play a role in your life. It’s about cultivating a healthy relationship with stress that enriches your life.

Navigating the many complexities of modern life, the pressures of family, business, career and so on, requires an ability to effectively manage and reduce your stress.

And sadly, failing to learn about stress and how to manage it by developing holistic approaches and practical strategies that can empower you to regain control of your life, will be to your detriment.

So knowing stress affects every aspect of your being, embracing holistic approaches will allow you to address it from multiple angles, whilst integrating practices that consider both your body and mind.

For example, engaging in physical activity will not only regulate “stress hormones” but promote the release of endorphins, which are considered to be natural mood enhancers that counteract stress.

Note, physical activity isn’t simply about burning calories, it helps regulate your stress hormones. More so, it triggers the release of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, more commonly known as the ‘feel-good hormones’.

Of equal value, mindfulness practices offer an alternative avenue for stress relief. Practices like deep breathing and meditation can regulate your emotional state by anchoring you in the present moment, helping to reduce overthinking and anxiety. 


With the complex nature of stress, it’s the interplay between your hormones, thoughts, and emotions which hold the key to understanding its impact on your overall wellbeing.

By recognising the physiological and psychological aspects of stress management and applying some practical strategies, you can take proactive steps toward a healthier, more balanced life.

And by embracing the harmonious interplay of your body and mind, you’ll feel more accepting, better equipped and confident to navigate the multifaceted nature of stress.

Remember, managing stress isn't to be thought of as some secondary endeavour. It’s pivotal to your professional growth, business success, and the health of your most important relationships.

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Photo credits: Timothy EberlyDan DimmockDennis BrekkeIlham Rahmansyah