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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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Recognize your stress

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Can you recognize your stress?

When was the last time you were stressed? How do you know? Can you describe what you felt?

Have you ever been in a hurry standing in line at the grocery store feeling like time was simply endless? You scrutinized every gesture the person in front of you made and you felt like the whole world was conspiring against your timely arrival at home with dinner.

You may also have felt like screaming at the top of your lungs but instead let out a loud sigh. Once home, your child repeats the same question (as he/she always does) but you snap and are surprised by your intense anger.

You probably were not that angry with your child but the situation presented the perfect opportunity to let out some steam related to the grocery store.

Jump up and down 15 times, put your hand to your chest and listen to your breathing. What you feel is exactly what the stress response triggers when it is activated.


For your brain, feeling stressed in that line caused the same bodily response as when our ancestors went on a mammoth hunt. In fact, this situation likely triggered your body’s stress response(also known as the fight or flight response). The primary goal of this response is to mobilize energy. Your body does this by extracting stored energy (sugar) and delivering it where it is needed.

i.e.: What do you do right before you pick up a heavy box or what a weight lifter does right before he/she picks up the load? You take a deep breath and hold the air in to give you strength. Energy mobilization is much like this.


Energy mobilization is the body’s way of preparing us for a stressful situation. So, let’s travel back in time. Imagine yourself as a Neanderthal cave-person on a mammoth hunt for food.
The mammoth appears! Your stress response system prepares you to fight and hunt down the mammoth or prepares you to flee from injury and death because the mammoth is too vicious, either way it gets you the energy you need.

Here are some of the changes that occur during the stress response whether you face a mammoth or are stressed in line at the grocery store:

  • Energy is transformed and created
    Fat stored in cells is converted into sugar for fast energy.
    Liver production of sugar allows for a new energy surge.
  • Cardiovascular activities pump into action
    Your heart rate increases to pump more blood into our muscles.
    Your arteries constrict to increase blood pressure.
    Your veins open up to ease the return of blood to the heart.
  • Inhalation/Exhalation increases to help the respiratory system.
    Your lungs, throat and nostrils open up to speed breathing.
    Your breathing deepens up to allow more oxygen in your blood.
  • Senses sharpen and toughen to keep you alert.
    Your pupils dilate (enlarge) so you can see more clearly.
    Your hairs stand up, making you more sensitive to touch.
    You secrete endorphins, our natural pain killers that numb pain in the case of injury helping to stay you focused.
  • Digestion and elimination stops.
    Blood vessels of the stomach, intestines, and kidneys constrict.
    Dry-mouth and loss of bladder and bowel control often occur.
  • Skin changes occur.
    Blood vessels constrict reducing blood loss in case of injury.
    Sweat glands open up to cool you down.
  • Reproduction stops.
    Ovulation stops and the production of estrogen decreases
    Testes decrease the production of testosterone

But all this redirected energy has to go somewhere. Hunting a mammoth would definitely do the trick, getting into your car after the grocery store and going home to make dinner would not. These days, more often than not, our release of this mobilized energy comes out in the form of anger, an unfortunate consequence of stress.

The real stress was when you felt your heart pounding, you got sweaty palms; you took deep breaths, you felt on edge and ready to roar, and you were hyperaware of all around you. This was your body responding to stress and mobilizing energy.


Our body responds to stress by releasing stress hormones that are designed to help us to meet the demands of the situation. This stress response is made possible by the actions of stress hormones.

First to kick in is adrenaline, the warrior hormone. Adrenaline charges within seconds to help get your heart pumping, your breathing up, and blood flowing to your muscles.

Second to sneak in is cortisol, the spy hormone. This hormone covertly invades within minutes (about 10) as a back-up for adrenaline to maintain those high energy levels. Cortisol helps turn stored fat into sugar as fuel for our body as we deal with the mammoth.

But stress hormones do a lot more!

Cortisol is also a natural anti-inflammatory. When injured, the immune system attacks infections and promotes healing through an ‘inflammatory response’. But this demands a lot of energy though so in times of stress our immune system is partially shut down.

Cortisol also acts on learning and memory systems so we remember details that help ensure our survival.

i.e.: We see that stabbing a mammoth above the knee makes it tumble down and easier to finish off. This will make future hunts shorter, less dangerous, and ensures that our tribe will eat for some time to come.

Cortisol also helps our body return to its normal state of affairs or homeostasis, after stressful situations are dealt with. It tells our brain that energy has been spent and that our body needs replenishment. This hunger signal sent by cortisol restores energy balance.

i.e.: Fleeing + sweating (loss of sugar, water, and salt) = thirst and hunger.

Take-home message
The trick to recognizing your stress is very simple, listen to your body. When you feel some of the changes involved in the stress response (increased heart rate, deep breathing, sweating), know that you are mobilizing energy. Try and use that energy much like our ancestors did when they went on a hunt. But let’s face it, we don’t hunt mammoths anymore! Nonetheless, our lives today are filled with many situations that lead to the release of stress hormones. What kind of stress do you face?