How does our stress response work?

When someone is faced with impending (or perceived) danger, the human body’s natural stress response is “fight or flight”.

The key players in this stress response are the autonomic nervous system (ANS), inflammatory cytokines and stress hormones.

The ANS provides a balance through regulating its two opposing arms: the sympathetic nervous system that controls our responses to stress and the parasympathetic nervous system that controls relaxation.

Too much sympathetic activation, as occurs with aging, exaggerates our stress response. Reduced parasympathetic tone, associated with being overweight, inactive or lacking quality sleep, also augments the effects of stress.

A number of inflammatory cytokines, which are the signalling molecules of our immune systems, are released as part of our stress response. These sensitize our brains to further stress.

Our levels of cytokines increase progressively with age, and this increase is faster in people suffering from chronic stress, diabetes and obesity.

Cortisol is our major stress-response hormone. It acts to mobilize resources to protect and repair our bodies. For the same stress, older individuals tend to produce more cortisol, and this response persists for much longer, making any stress more damaging.

How to reduce stress

  • Be an optimist
  • Avoid cynicism and hostility
  • Calm down – practice ways to be less reactive; if you’re feeling angry in a situation, take a deep breath before taking any action
  • Cultivate a positive tone in your communication, whether in your marriage or other relationships
  • Laugh more – you may have to make a real effort here – watch comedy, make new and funny friends, or join a laughing club
  • Get involved with your local community
  • Sit up straight – slouching flags to your body and mind that you are feeling low
  • Take big steps – walk quickly and purposefully, with your shoulders back and head up
  • Smile more and do it on purpose – plan to smile to three new people each and every day
  • Change your tone of voice so it is cheerful and full of energy
  • Use more positive wording, such as saying, “It’s a challenge” ,rather than “It’s a problem”

Last reviewed 10/May/2017


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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals

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