29 February 2024

STRESS – why we need to know about it


I talk a lot about trying to get some ‘me time’ ie downtime, especially when you have a lot going on or are a bit stressed.  Today, I thought I would clear a few things up about stress, so you don’t end up stressing about being stressed and know what you can do to help yourself!

What happens when you are stressed?

Stress triggers the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response.  What this means is that your brain triggers a response to your body to protect it.  So, we do need our stress response mechanism but it is when it becomes a constant that it can lead to illness.

Our brain will signal to the ‘stress hormones’ to kick in when we are feeling stress. This can lead to physical symptoms like a racing heart beat or breathlessness, sweats or jittery muscles – ready for the flight mode.

This is because our body is programmed to protect ourselves.

Don’t worry about getting stressed some of the time, to everyday situations.  It is a natural mental and physical reaction.

Before we look at the negative effects of stress, I do want to look at the positives and why we do need some stress.

Good Stress

It can improve cognitive function:  Research has shown it can actually have positive effects. In response to moderate stress levels, the pressure and nervousness you feel, can potentially boost your brain’s performance. This is because moderate stress strengthens the connection between neurons in your brain, improving memory and attention span.

In one study, researchers at the University of Berkeley found that in lab rats “brief stressful events caused the stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells” resulting in increased mental performance after  weeks.

Low level stress can help protect from infections:  The fight-or-flight response you feel when stressed is designed to protect you, whether it’s from injury or another perceived threat.

What’s interesting about low doses of the stress hormone is that it also helps protect from infections. Moderate stress stimulates the production of a chemical in the body which gives the immune system a quick boost to protect against illnesses.

It can help build resilience:  Stressful situations may actually build you up stronger to cope with difficult situations.  When you experience something for the first time, you might think it’s the worst situation and crumble because you don’t know how to cope. But as you confront different situations and overcome various problems, you train yourself to deal with similar incidents in the future.

‘Bad Stress’

Ok, now we have looked at the positives, we do need to look at what the impact chronic stress can have on the body.  I will then point out what you can do to help yourself.

Central Nervous system (CNS) & the endocrine system

I will make this as straight forward as I can.  Basically, the CNS is in charge of the fight or flight response in the body.  The brain, in the hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone – adrenaline & cortisol.

It is cortisol & adrenaline which gets the heart beating faster as it sends blood pumping to the areas that are needed in an emergency – eg heart & muscles.

Ideally, once the fear has gone the hypothalamus should tell the system to go back to normal.

If, however, you have an exhausted adrenal system or the stressor/problem continues the response will carry on.  Hence causing more exhausted adrenal/endocrine system.

Respiratory & cardiovascular systems

Next is how stress affects your heart & breathing.  If you have had a panic attack or chronic stress you will know your heart rate goes up and you may feel more breathless.

When stressed, your blood vessels constrict & divert more oxygen to your muscles but it can raise your blood pressure.  If under chronic stress for a long time, this could put more pressure on your heart as it works harder, hence it could put you at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Digestive System

Your liver will produce extra blood sugar (glucose) to help boost energy.  If chronically stressed your body may not be able to manage this excess glucose surge – in the long run it could lead to type 2 diabetes.

The rush of hormones & increased heart rate can then lead to an upset digestive system.  You could get heart burn or acid reflux as there has been an increase in stomach acid.  You may also experience diarrhoea or constipation as a reaction.

Muscular system

I am sure most of you have experienced tight shoulders when stressed.  This is because the muscles will protect themselves from injury at the threat of stress & tense up.

They would relax once the stress has gone away but if you are constantly under stress you will feel more shoulder, upper back pain which can trigger headaches too.

Don’t forget the pelvic floor is a muscle.  When stressed, without realising you could be holding onto the pelvic floor muscles, get tighter and then find you may have some issues.

How stress affects your weight & body

Many of you, in fact probably all of us have worried about what we look like and putting on weight.  Always looking for quick fixes or longer term ways to lose weight.

Unfortunately, a combination of stress and the menopause often means women in their mid 40’s onwards find they can’t lose weight so easily.

One of the 1st things I will ask a new client who has pelvic floor issues, or wants to lose weight – is ‘What is your lifestyle like?  Are you very stressed?’  I ask because when we are stressed a lot of the time we are not lowering the hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is the hormone which protects us in the fight or flight mode.  It helps us store our fat reserves.

Obviously, everyone is totally different and responds to stress differently.  If you are someone who has tried dieting, lots of exercise and still aren’t losing weight, maybe start by looking at your lifestyle.  Take a look at where you can STOP, breathe and how you could reduce some of your stresses.

This does include your exercise.  Many people may feel they need to increase their exercise.  However, for most, when stressed and have high cortisol levels, they will just exhaust their adrenal system and won’t lose weight or may put on more weight.

What can you do to help yourself when stressed

The most important thing is to actually acknowledge your stress and then think about what you need to do.

Some stressors are very hard to get rid of – family stress, illness etc.  However, there are a few things I would wholly recommend to look at and try.  Even trying for 1 minute here or there in your day can kick in with the calming nervous system.

  • Stop for 1 minute, close your eyes and just stop.
  • In the 1 minute try whichever breathing technique suits you best – in for 4, hold for 5 & out for 5? Or maybe in for 3 & out for 6. The exhale is what kicks in with your parasympathetic nervous system which is the calming system.
  • You may have to forgo your coffee when feeling really stressed or anxious as it can make you feel more jittery
  • Similarly, maybe consider cutting down on alcohol. I know it is something we reach for when stressed, however, it will actually lead to a worse night’s sleep.
  • Try different ways to help your sleep. It is a time the body regenerates, mends and calms. So, if you can try to create a calming bed routine it really can help.  It may take a little time to get used to, but if you stick to it your body should begin to rest better when sleeping.
  • If you are very stressed – realise that pushing it hard in a fitness session will only increase your stress / cortisol levels. Sometimes you need to realise & know that LESS is BETTER. Go outside and walk to calm the nervous system rather than stress it even more.
  • You may have to look at your life – what is stressing you and HOW can you change things. I know this can be incredibly difficult. You may have to accept you have to give some things up – even for a while.  Look at your stress triggers and see whether you can change a few things in your life to prevent them or manage them better.

I hope this has helped.  There are so many wonderful apps you can download now – most are free like Insight Timer. Look at Tapping or getting help and seeing a councillor or find support online.

Remember, recognise your stress levels before they get out of hand. x

Still not sure which fitness class is for you?

Are you a woman who has pelvic girdle pain? Do you have pelvic floor issues? Have you had a C-section, episiotomy or tears? Do you have a Diastasis Recti or weak deep abdominals? Are you peri – menopausal? Do you want to get fit in a safe environment? I can help, get in touch to find out more.


Sign up with your email address to receive women's health and fitness news and tips.


By submitting this form you agree to be added to the newsletter database. Please view our privacy policy.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.