The Science of Stress

science of stress

Understand your body’s biomarkers to tame the anxiety monster. 

If you’ve felt stressed and anxious this week, you’re not alone. Survey results from the American Institute of Stress paint a picture of how most of us are feeling in these uncertain times: The majority of Americans feel both physical (77%) and psychological symptoms (73%) of stress. One-third of people say they are living with extreme stress. And nearly 50% of us report that our stress levels have increased over the past 5 years. Read on to learn more about the science of stress.

stress management at work

Stress symptoms include headache, muscle tension, fatigue, sleeplessness, inability to focus, anxiety, weight gain, repetitive (ruminating) negative and depressive thoughts. You’ve probably experienced these and others. Stress seems like such a common facet of life that people often take it for granted or don’t consider its long-term effects. But constant exposure to the natural stress hormones that your body produces will significantly impact your immediate and long-term health. So, it’s important to recognize how your body responds to stressful situations and whether it makes sense to intervene.

The Physiology of Stress

Contrary to popular belief, a little stress is a good thing. The “fight or flight” response developed as a survival mechanism. When you encounter danger such as a large predator that’s eyeing you for its next meal or more likely, an angry dog bent on interrupting your jog, your body floods with hormones so you can either fight your battle or make a hasty retreat.

So, what happens exactly?

When you encounter a stressor, the HPA Axis (short for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is activated, originating from a brain region called the amygdala. This is the control center for sensation and emotion processing. The amygdala sends an SOS signal to the hypothalamus, which passes a message along to the pituitary gland. From here, your adrenal glands start pumping the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream. This elevates your heart rate, increases blood flow, and opens your airways so you get more oxygen. If the dangerous situation doesn’t go away, the hormone cortisol keeps your body on high alert. This process happens so quickly, you likely don’t register these changes in your body. 

Why Does This Matter?

While most of us aren’t faced with bodily harm in our day-to-day lives, we still rely on our fight-or-flight response to make snap decisions in stressful situations.

stress written on paper

Health consequences rarely stem from these one-off moments, but rather when stress and anxiety become constant.

Some common stressful life events that linger include divorce, death of a family member, loss of job, marital trouble, injury and illnesses. Unfortunately, modern life is full of these events. Everyday stressors include rent payments, overdue bills, childcare concerns, persistent long-haul symptoms stemming from COVID, 24 news bombardment, and more. All these can cause you to experience chronic stress and its long-term health risks. Stress leads to an increased risk for diseases of aging, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease, and psychological issues that interfere with our quality of life.  Research suggests that 31% of Americans will experience some sort of anxiety disorder in their lifetimes. 

“In contemporary society, individuals are stressed for long periods of time,” says Dr. Carolyn M. Mazure Ph.D., a Yale Medicine psychologist and director of Women’s Health Research. “In this situation, stress no longer serves its initial biological function of alerting us; its function becomes corrupted when it is chronic or prolonged and you cannot turn it off.”

By tracking key biomarkers, sleep patterns, and glycemic (glucose) reactions to food and exercise, Comite Center clinicians can determine how your body uniquely reacts to stressful situations. From there, we can intervene with nutrition, exercise, stress management techniques, medications, and supplements. We’ll offer proactive steps to optimize your biomarkers with actionable interventions. These personalized steps can help counteract the physical and psychological effects of stress, and improve your current health now and reverse your future health decline.

One Way Chronic Stress Affects You

Did you know that chronic stress can make you gain weight? It has to do with the stress hormone cortisol.

If your cortisol is too high, this negatively impacts your sugar metabolism, causing you to store energy as fat. You will gain weight around your middle. During periods of particularly high stress, you may experience burnout, at which point cortisol drops below optimal levels. Too low cortisol isn’t healthy either and may trigger chronic fatigue syndrome and susceptibility to infections, viruses and bacteria. Generally, we like to see cortisol between 6 and 12 micrograms per deciliter (mg/dL) in the morning, when it’s at its peak.

Stress affects other hormones, too. For instance, Harvard Medical School researchers have found that consistent surges of a hormone called epinephrine can do serious damage to your blood vessels and arteries, increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

What You Can Do To Combat Constant Stress

Restorative practices like yoga and meditation come up often when discussing how to deal with anxiety – and for good reason.

couple deep breathing exercise at the park

Practicing mindfulness can slow the mind and help you achieve a sense of calm.

Even deep, steady breathing exercises with awareness can slow your heart rate and relax you. When we get stressed, we often “chest breathe,” taking quicker, shallower breaths, which exacerbate anxiety. The antidote is belly breathing, that is slowing your breathing. It’s easy to do if you focus on taking slower, deeper breaths, allowing your belly to rise before your chest does. It may help to place a hand on your belly and your other hand on your chest to practice this deep breathing technique. Need a visual? Let Sesame Street’s Elmo and singer Colby Caillat help you out in this Belly Breathe video, one of our favorites. Another proven remedy for stress is the Relaxation Response technique developed by renowned mind-body medicine pioneer Herbert Benson, MD. Interventions like these will also avert strong reactions, such as anger and frustration, common to all of us. 

However, if you are not seeing the results you want with restorative practices alone, it’s time to add another approach to your routine. Your unique genetics, hormone levels, diet, and even environment all play a role in how your body and mind respond to stress. You may need an action plan that is as unique as all of these variables.

Talk to your doctor about tracking your biomarkers, such as cortisol, glucose, insulin, and hormones over time. Feel free to contact the Comite Center for an appointment to take a deeper dive into your health. These crucial, personalized insights, will lead to optimizing your biomarkers so you can tame your stress monster and begin to feel your best now and into the future.


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