The Body’s Response To Stress And How Do We Deal With It

Category: Brain, Stress
Last Updated: 25 May 2023
Essay type: Response
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Table of contents


Stress is a psychological and physical response of the body that occurs whenever we must adapt to changing conditions. And a stressor is the stimulus that brings about the stress response. For example, if you are scared of flying, airports may be a stressor for you.

Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis (HPA)

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The stress response begins in the brain in an area called the hypothalamus, this is the point at which the perception of stress by higher brain centres begins a major physiological change in the body, it does this by stimulating 2 biological mechanisms. The first is called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal system (HPA). When a stressor is detected, the higher brain centre send signals to hypothalamus telling it to ready the body for action. The hypothalamus does this by communicating with another part of the brain called the pituitary gland, stimulating it to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is detected in the bloodstream by the adrenal cortex, and in response it releases further hormones called the corticosteroids. There are a number of corticosteroids each having specific effects on the body, like causing liver to release glucose, fatty acids and cholesterol for extra energy needed during stress. When the corticosteroids are detected by the brain it has the effect of switching off the stress response.

Sympathetic Adrenalmedullary Axis (SAM)

For the sympathetic adrenal medullary axis (SAM), when the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is a part of the autonomic nervous system, it stimulates a gland in the body called the adrenal medulla to release 2 hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream, these hormones have wide-ranging effects but mainly to increase blood pressure and heart rate.

Seyle’s General Adaption Syndrome

Han Selye(1940) developed a theory which has helped us understand how and why stress leads to illness. He subjected animals to a variety of stressors such as injection, poison or extreme temperature and found that a similar pattern of physical responses could be observed, and divided them into three different stages. At stage 1 which is the alarm stage, stressor is perceived, HPA and SAM are activated, heart rate and blood pressure therefore increase.Stage 2, the resistant stage, the level of stress-related hormones and bodily arousal are remaining high n finally, at the final exhaustion stage, long period of stress (chronic stress) eventually exhaust the body’s defense system and its ability to maintain high levels of circulating stress hormones, stress related illness may develop. There has been an increasing body of evidence supporting a relationship between long-term stress and cardiovascular disease, 2 of the biggest risks are high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

Kiecolt- Glaser’s Exam Study

Research on a wide variety of stressors has shown that stress can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Kiecolt- Glaser et al (1984) has done an experiment on stress and the immune system.

The aim of the experiment is to see whether external stress can have an impact on the immune system. They did it by collecting samples of 75 medical students on 2 different occasions. First, blood samples was taken at one month before their examinations, which is a relatively low stress time and secondly, during the examinations. The researchers looked at each of the blood samples and calculate the natural killer cell content. The more natural killer cells, the more efficient the immune system. Finally they found that the blood samples taken during the exams were much lower in NK cells than the samples taken a month earlier. One of the drawbacks of this experiment is that it had a causality problem, we cannot conclude that the stress caused the reduction in the immune system. Moreover, there may be a sampling bias, the participants are students n it is possible that they may respond to stress differently than some other types of people. However, being a natural experiment this study has high validity and there are likely to be few or no demand characteristics, though control of extraneous variables was not possible.

Problem-focused method of coping

The methods of coping with stress can be distinguished into emotion-focused and problem-focused methods of coping. The problem focused way deal with stress by treating it as a problem and actively engage with it. This includes anticipatory coping by gaining information about what makes us stressed and develop a plan of action to help us deal with it, and seeking social suport, pit means identify events in the environment that are either causing or likely to trigger stress, then we can take practical steps to avoid or better deal with it. SIT, the stress inoculation training is developed by Meichenbaum (1972) , its a psychological method of dealing with stress by restructuring how we think about events. First the client is encouraged to reappraise stress, the therapist discusses the nature of stress with the client and explores stressful experiences that the client had in the past. Secondly the client is taught various ways of coping with stress, these would be quite specific and include general strategies such as relaxation. In the final phase clients are encouraged to apply their training to the real world. The stressors may be graded and gradually increase in intensity. Meichenbaum then wanted to investigate how effective his own SIT treatment was. So he studied anxious pre-exam students and placed them in three different conditions which are 8 weeks of SIT, 8 weeks of systematic desensitisation, and the controlled group which had no therapy at all. The efficiency of SIT was evaluated through exam performance and self reports by participants. So simply, if the students felt it has been sucessful and they performed well in exams, SIT was judged to have worked. Finally he found that the SIT group gave the most positive self-reports and outperformed the other students in exam. Some drawbacks of this study is that self-reports are not necessarily reliable , just because a person feels that something has not worked does not mean they receive no benefits from it. Moreover the study does not address “optimum treatment period”, so we cannot be sure which of the method is best, only that SIT worked better than systematic desensitisation if a treatment period of 8 weeks is used. Although SIT is neither a quick, easy or cheap method to mange stress, it is flexible and the benefits of it can be long term.

The emotion-focused way of coping

The emotion-focused method is one that provides stressed person with relief from their symptoms. Some of the techniques are defence mechanisms, which is a way of blocking out the stress, or they may choose to reappraise it, which means simply changing the way they feel about the situation. Drugs is also the common physiological method to use. The most widely used prescribed drugs today are benzodiazepines and beta-blocker. They are quick acting, but do not treat the cause of problem, they may also have side effects n cause addiction too.


In conclusion, the problem focused strategies aim to change, alter or even remove the stressful problem, while emotion-focused aim to control or regulate the feelings a person is having. It has no a very satisfying answer of which one is better than the other, each has its strengths n weaknesses and each works best in different situations. Different people with different personalities and characteristics can react differently to stress, so which method of coping to choose is depend on numbers of factors, gender, age, and even wealth may also matter!


  1. NHS
  2. New 2008 AQA ‘A’ Specification AS Level Psychology, Nigel Holt and Rob Lewis, Crown House Publishing Limited
  3. Coping with stress

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The Body’s Response To Stress And How Do We Deal With It. (2019, Apr 02). Retrieved from

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