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Understanding Stress- Part 1: The stress reaction

Understanding and regulating stress is becoming increasingly important in our times, because chronic stress has a lasting damaging effect on the immune system and on the general mental and physical condition. Our physical reaction to stress is an instinctive and cognitively little influenceable physical state. However, it is possible to identify personal stressors and reduce the intensity of stressful experiences. The following series of articles covers these topics:

  1. Part: How does stress affect the body? From easy activation to burnout
  2. Part: Relationship between stress experience and personality
  3. Part: Mental hygiene and strengthening of the immune system

Part 1: The stress reaction: From easy activation to burnout syndrome

We live in a time in which idle and calm are becoming less and less. Many of us are in a constant state of activation. Appointments, professional demands, conflicts and a never-ending stream of thoughts are what keep us in constant stress. It is medically evident that what we think, experience and feel has an image in our body. It has been shown that permanent mental and physical activation and lack of recovery time have serious effects on health.

The vegetative nervous system

Anyone who deals with the subject of physiological stress reaction cannot avoid the vegetative nervous system. The vegetative nervous system or autonomous nervous system is not subject to much conscious control. In terms of developmental biology, these are old functions that are controlled via the hypothalamus and not via the cerebrum, with which we think through and analyze more complex processes. The hypothalamus reacts in situations in which we no longer think in complex terms and it reacts to all kinds of stressors.The example of the well-known trauma therapist Peter Levine is often used here. In his book “Waking the Tiger” (1997) he describes the typical stress reaction using the example of an encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger. Imagine you are in the jungle and you see the tiger out of the corner of your eye.


It is not the right moment for complex trains of thought, that makes sense.

At this moment, basal brain functions and thus also the autonomic nervous system react. The vegetative nervous system consists mainly of two antagonists, or perhaps better, interactors.

The first stress reaction: “Fight or Flight” – the sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the activation in our body, it accelerates the heartbeat, the breathing, the circulation and releases hormones such as adrenaline, dopamine or noradrenaline. The digestion is inhibited. In the sympathetic activation we are awake, focused and present. We are ready to tackle something. In our case, the tiger. Alternatively, in this case, we would also be prepared to do something smarter, namely escape. We do not think, we act. Our whole system is being prepared for survival and for acting quickly. This stress is also called “hot stress”.

The parasympathetic nervous system: The break

The parasympathetic reaction is opposed to the sympathetic reaction. After a successful escape or after a great effort, there comes at best a phase of relaxation. The parasympathetic nervous system shuts down our system, our blood pressure drops, the heartbeat becomes lower, we relax. It is time for digestion and rest. The parasympathetic reaction is a kind of petrol station, a regeneration process which is absolutely existential for our physical and mental well-being.

The second stress reaction: Cortisol

If, in our panic, we have fled from the tiger to a tree, with our last strength, safe, but the tiger is still there and lurks. At this moment, a parasympathetic recovery reaction is not possible and yet our reserves are exhausted. Then our nervous system reacts with a second stress reaction: with cortisol. This second response to stress sets in after about 10 minutes. Like adrenalin, it promotes the provision of energy for stressful situations. Certainly practical in the case of the tiger.

And this is where the problems begin. If we now apply our example to our present life, then we are rarely in front of real tigers. Our tigers are overstraining in the professional setting, overload, traffic jams with long journey times, deadline pressure or conflicts with superiors and partners. Those are mostly no problems in which our body can convert the increased activation immediately and successfully into an action.


Our nervous system does not distinguish between time pressure in traffic jams and tigers

But our nervous system does not distinguish between tigers and other stressors. Thus, it comes to so-called “cold stress”, a permanently increased activation, which, however, can hardly be converted or acted out. The consequence is a permanently increased cortisol level. This means a nervous overactivation, often also sleep disorders, high blood pressure, heart diseases and false reactions of the immune system. Our memory functions, our learning ability and concentration also suffer. In the long term, brain cells shrink and this can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Also in patients with clinical depression, 25% higher cortisol levels were measured immediately after waking up in the morning.

The third stress reaction: Burnout

If this state is maintained, our body exhausts itself enormously. The adrenal glands, which are responsible for hormone production, are drained and at the end of their strength. This can lead to the third stress reaction: the exhausted adrenal glands do not release enough cortisol. Hypercorticolism has become hypocorticolism. This exhaustion of the organs and the resulting susceptibility to inflammatory reactions and infections as well as the general weakening of the body are what is experienced today as burnout. As a result, we feel chronically exhausted and drained and yet we remain nervous and activated. This can lead to inflammatory processes and a depressive experience. Some also report experiences of alienation and inner deafness.

Finding the balance

A balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic reactions is thus absolutely necessary for mental well-being and a stable immune system. Both an elevated and a too low cortisol level are not healthy in the long run. It is our job to support the parasympathetic regulation and to ensure a healthy balance in our life. To prevent infections, to develop a healthy defence against viruses of all kinds and for a stable psyche, rhythms are existential.

In the next two articles you will find out what you can do and what role your personality plays in this.

Dipl. Psych. Andrea Wurst, coach and editor at dynaMIND