Skip main navigation

A brief overview of stress

An overview of the stress response and the physiological changes that occur under stress.
Lady leaning against a brick wall with her hands clasped

‘Stress’, or feeling ‘stressed’, is often referred to in a negative way. However, it is important to remember that how we respond to stressful situations is an evolved mechanism, which has enabled our species to survive (and thrive) for thousands of years. Often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response, the stress response is how our bodies and minds respond in situations where we feel under threat. There are several physiological changes that occur when our stress response is activated, including: pupil dilation, dry mouth, increased breathing and heart rate, slowed digestion, sweaty palms, and the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which is the main stress hormone. These changes allow us to cope with the potential threat that we face. In terms of early human evolution, such threats might have been dangerous predators or rival human groups.

In modern society, we are rarely exposed to these types of situation. However, ‘modern’ stressors also are very effective at activating our stress response. These include stressors such as workplace stress, commuting, financial stress and even interacting with social media. As a result, our stress-response system is regularly activated by stimuli in our everyday environment, and chronically high levels of adrenaline and cortisol can be very damaging for both our physical health and mental health. Chronically high stress levels negatively impact our body, mind, emotions and behaviour, as shown in the diagram below, and can potentially explain the very high levels of mental health disorders (such as depression and anxiety) that we see in our population.

The Impact of Stress on Body, Mind, Emotions and Behaviour

The Impact of Stress on Body, Mind, Emotions and Behaviour, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is from the free online

Workplace Wellbeing: Stress and Productivity at Work

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now