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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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‘My love, I find that you’ve been a little stressed these past few days. You’ve yelled at the kids four times and now the dog runs away every time he crosses your path. Do you think you could try to reduce your stress a little?’.




‘My love, you squeezed the toothpaste tube so tight when you talked to me that you emptied it out with one go…’


Humans seem to have lost the ability to detect their own stress responses.  People around us are sometimes better at detecting these responses than we are.  Yet, whenever we have a stress response, our bodies and brains send us many clues to inform us of that state. My spontaneous anger, the day before yesterday, (see my blog post entitled: COVID-19: A sudden outburst of anger) is one such clue.  But there are others.


You can only manage a problem if you know it exists. So, to help us manage our stress in these times of COVID-19, I want to give you a few of the ABC’s on the stress response and the clues that our body and brain send out to inform us of this condition.  Once the stress response is understood, I will then be able to give you some simple methods to reduce the stress response in future blog posts.


This stress response has existed since the dawn of time and is necessary for survival. It allowed for prehistoric men to detect threats in the environment (such as mammoths) and survive. When the brain detects a threat, it activates a hormonal system that leads to the production of stress hormones by the body. Once produced, these stress hormones allow the body to handle the threat by running away or fighting it.  However, a certain amount of stress hormones will also access the brain and change the way we process information. When faced with stressful situations, you produce a stress response that is expressed by the following 10 signs.


  1. Your pupils dilate: Pupil dilation occurs to allow more light into the eye to maximize night vision, in case the threat occurs at night. Thus, a stress response will result in clearer, more defined objects. The next time you feel a stress response overwhelming you, be on the lookout for this clue. You’ll notice that the contours of the objects around you are clearer, so you can see a little farther away.


  1. Your hair stands on end: Think of a cat who comes across a dog. The hair on its body will stand on end, making it look bigger, increasing its chances of scaring the dog. The same response occurs in humans, but who are much less hairy than prehistoric humans who hunted mammoths. If you look at the hair on your arms when you have a stress response, you’ll see them standing on end. But don’t worry, this hair straightening response only applies to the body, so your hair on your head will not move a hair :).


  1. Your heart rate increases: This response develops to allow your body to send more blood to your muscles to give you the strength you need to fight the threat. Thus, when you have a stress response, you are stronger. It’s the body’s normal response to send a boost of blood to the muscles, allowing the muscles to increase their ability to fight the threat.


  1. Your breathing becomes shallow: This response sends more oxygen to the muscles and, again, increases our strength to fight the threat. You can easily recognize this accelerated breathing in another person. This is because the person is gasping for air and, when speaking, will tend to have a shaky voice. This is a stress indicator that is very easy to recognize in another person!


  1. Your muscles become tense: With all that blood and oxygen being directed to the muscles, the muscles are ready for battle! They tighten, your fists clench, your jaw tightens. When you recognize that your muscles are very tense, pay attention to your heart and breathing. You will notice that your heart is beating faster than usual and your breathing seems more difficult. You are in the midst of a stress response.


  1. Your sweat glands open up: The sweat glands allow us to sweat. Generally, we sweat when we do sports or demanding work, as both activities increase body temperature and perspiration helps us lower our body temperature. When we have a stress response, we mobilize energy as if we were doing something physically demanding and the sweat glands open, releasing sweat, to help us lower our body temperature. Under these conditions, we sweat without even moving.


  1. Your eyes start to wander: Before a threat, your eyes start to wander from one place to another very quickly. The person under stress thus analyzes the environment to detect other potential threats, to make sure that everything is fine. He or she is constantly trying to identify elements that will allow them to handle the stress response.


  1. You have spontaneous anger: You are scanning the environment for clues that will impede your threat and suddenly something interferes with your threat detection work (for example, your child stands in front of you while you listen to a special television program about COVID-19). When this happens, there is a high probability that you will have an outburst of spontaneous anger that will lead you to yell at your child to move so that you can continue watching the special program.


  1. You are constantly thinking about the situation, the person, the event that is stressing you out: When your brain detects a threat, it begins to take up all the place in your mind because the brain is trying to ensure your survival. It will direct your thinking towards the threat until you have overcome it. That’s when the little hamster enters your mind. This clue is impossible to detect from the outside, but it is one of the most obvious signs that you are under stress in your life.


  1. You start to forget things: Since your brain is constantly thinking about the situation that is causing you stress, it becomes increasingly difficult to pay attention to and register other information from the environment that is not related to the threat. You walk into a room in the house wondering what you came in to do, or you lose your train of thought.


You should not be afraid of these physical and mental displays of stress. They are completely normal bodily responses that occur in any stressful situation.  However, it is important to recognize these signs to become aware of our stress responses and work to control them as they occur. When we do this, we prevent our acute stresses from leading to chronic stress.


I can now imagine you all on the edge of your seats waiting for what’s next. So, what do we do to decrease these stress responses? Fear not, I will continue to write blogs for you in the coming days to give you ways to manage these stress responses.


But before doing so, you need to practice recognizing your stress responses because you will only be able to implement stress management methods if you recognize the stress response when it occurs!


So… what are the signs that you recognize in yourself?


From Sonia Lupien, PhD. Director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress