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The Science of Stress, and How it Works for You

November 03, 2023

By Dr. Brooke Stuart 

In the medical world and in our society, stress has been highly demonized. I see articles all the time on “How To Fight Stress” and “Be Stress Free.” Neither work, and both amplify the problem. 

Now, what I love about problems is that they can be solved! 

And if you really think about it, why would you want to eradicate stress? Some of the most meaningful experiences are “stressful” – just think motherhood, public speaking or a big project at work.

What if there was  a better way to handle it? What if stress was a message? What if it was actually an opportunity for growth and development, a sign to redirect and change? 

Throughout this article, we will explore the ins and outs of stress and go over some simple, yet effective mindset shifts to help you detoxify stress and make it work for – rather than against –you. 

The Difference Between Stress & Stressors 

Stress is the total mind-body response experienced when we perceive that we do not have the resources to handle a life experience. At its core, stress is a disturbance in homeostasis that results in a series of psychological and physiological adaptations. 

A stressor is the stimulus, or the perceived threat, that triggers a stress response such as a final exam, argument or food intolerance. Simply put, our level of stress is determined by what we are given and how we choose to interpret it. It is the interplay between our genetic predisposition, life experiences, perceptions and choices. 

How Stress Affects The Body 

Initially, our body and mind work together to evaluate an experience and decide whether or not it is a threat to our system based on stored memories, sensory input and processing. If the experience is perceived as a threat, the acute stress response, known as The Fight or Flight Response is activated. This response is produced by a general release from the sympathetic nervous system, priming the organism to fight or flee under attack. More specifically, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis is set into motion when the hypothalamus receives a signal of distress from one of its many inputs. 

The hypothalamus then signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to set off a cascade of hormones that result in the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and the catecholamines, specifically norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) simultaneously. The release of these two chemical messengers results in the production of cortisol. This function redistributes energy to the critical organs –such as the heart, the brain and muscle groups that need it most– and away from what does not, such as digestive and reproductive organs. 

This response is triggered to boost and redistribute energy in order to give the body increased strength, speed and support in anticipation of an attack.  

Did you read that correctly? This response is triggered to help the body rise to the challenge. 

Contrary to popular belief, the stress response differs with each experience and is influenced by our perspective of it. However, in order to better understand its effects, let’s go on to discuss the Fight or Flight Response, in general. 

During the Fight or Flight Response, your senses are sharpened, your heart starts to race, breathing becomes rapid, blood pressure goes up and other systems are suppressed. I’m sure you can relate. 

After the stressor is no longer present and enough cortisol has been secreted to restore homeostasis, the elevated levels of cortisol in the blood bind to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to inhibit the production of more cortisol, essentially turning off the stress response through feedback inhibition. 

Where The Problem Comes In 

The problem comes when the acute stress response turns long term and chronic. While the body is prepared to come down from an acute reaction, it is not prepared to be in a prolonged state of tension without relief and proper restoration. 

When stress is not managed properly, it can then go on to disrupt the natural rhythm and flow of cortisol throughout the day, and it’s this broken rhythm that can cause unnecessary confusion and chaos. 

So, how does this reaction manifest? According to the research, symptoms are diverse and nonspecific and can include, but are not limited to: 

  • Trouble with memory and recall 
  • Inability to focus and concentrate 
  • Inability to judge situations and make decisions 
  • Pessimistic attitude 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Moody, irritable and short tempered 
  • Agitated, unable to relax, nervous habits 
  • Feeling overwhelmed and incapable 
  • Feeling lonely and isolated 
  • Sleep irregularities 
  • Procrastination and neglecting responsibilities 
  • Overuse of alcohol and drugs
  • Cravings– especially sugar, carbs and caffeine 
  • Dizziness– especially from lying to standing 
  • Lightheadedness– especially in between meals 
  • Skin issues– acne, eczema, psoriasis 
  • Headaches and pains 
  • Chronic fatigue and exhaustion 
  • Irregular periods and infertility 
  • Decreased libido 
  • Digestive and elimination issues 
  • Accelerated aging 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Obesity, increased visceral (abdominal) fat and reduction in the ability to burn fat 

And the list goes on … In fact, it is not far-fetched to say that stress has the potential to play a part in every chronic disease that exists today.  

But, more important than its role in chronic disease, is our perception of it. In fact, the research also says that we can turn stress from a death sentence into an avenue for growth, development, health and well-being if we so choose. 

I think Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress, said it best in her Ted Talk, “How To Make Stress Your Friend”, where she references several studies covering this phenomenon.

●      “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality.”: This study looked at the link between the belief that stress is bad for you and public death records. It found that the belief that stress is bad for you could actually kill more people than stress itself.

●      “Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress.”: This Harvard study looked at the link between our perception of stress and cardiovascular and cognitive function. It found that rethinking the stress response as helpful improved both.

How can we learn to detoxify stress and embrace it in a new and empowering way? 

I use a unique process in my private practice, depicted here, to address the mind and body holistically. 

look at → learn from → let go of → grow through → evolution 

We look at mindset, diet and lifestyle and how to let go of what doesn’t work, incorporate what does, and move forward powerfully in a way that is true to you. 

Finally, don’t let the notion of stress amplify it. Stress is a part of the human experience, a natural part of being alive, which is a blessing in it of itself. The next time you experience a challenge, acknowledge it, embrace it, go within and see how you can grow through it. Dive deep and allow it to make you even stronger and more resilient than you already are. 

Dr. Brooke Stuart will lead at half-day workshop at Converge23 in November. She is the founder and active president of Let Go & Grow® International and a holistic doctor in private practice, where she specializes in taking a holistic approach to mental health and high performance, assisting her patients in unlocking their own, intrinsic ability to heal.