Is stress our friend? Here’s what the expert thinks


Is stress our friend? Well yes… and no says Dr Amber Johnston – a clinical psychologist specialising in neuropsychology. Here’s what she has to say about regulating an overactive stress response 

We as a society are inundated with stress, evident in alarming health statistics of emotional and physical stress-related conditions. 

Minimising the stress within our lives clearly needs to be prioritised, but it’s never as easy as saying, ‘just reduce your stress!’   

What is stress? 

From a neurological perspective, stress is something very specific – it’s an alarm, a call to action. The stress response is a physiological reaction that happens within the brain and body in response to a trigger. 

Triggers may be environmental and picked up by the senses, or psychogenic thoughts or interpretations of body signal. A known danger may release an immediate reflexive action. For example, if you touch a hot stove or if you see a bear on your path, this sensory information will quickly enter your brain and be processed to release adrenaline to fire up the body ready for immediate reaction. 

A reflex may happen (moving hand away from the stove) or it may be a preparation to fight or flee (I’d prefer to flee the bear). All of this can happen before you’re even consciously aware of it.  You do not need to think, because really, conscious thinking is too slow. 

The brain would rather err on the side of caution, and only later, once you’ve ran from the path back to the safety of your car, only then can you slow down to determine whether the bear was real or maybe just a cardboard cut-out prank. 

From a neurological perspective, stress is something very specific – it’s an alarm, a call to action

Considering its purpose, stress is actually our friend. It’s an evolutionary tool that has been honed over time to keep us safe. Through the coordinated workings of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as our stress response, our senses can interpret our surroundings and set our body up for immediate response so that we have our best bet at survival. 

Our sympathetic nervous system activates our heart to begin pumping blood to our major muscle groups (biceps and quads) away from our periphery (fingers and toes), shortens our breath to get more oxygen flowing, turns off digestive functioning (when there’s a bear, it’s not the time to eat), and sharpens our senses to tune into the threat (see bear, and only bear).

When the threat is gone, a separate system (the relaxation response) turns on, and the body returns to normal functioning.   

The alert process works incredibly well when in the wilderness looking out for wild animals, as generations of ancestors did before us.

Nowadays, we aren’t normally confronted with a quick physical threat that suddenly abates after fighting or fleeing it.  Instead, we are often confronted by threats that are more lasting, less physical, more social, and often abstract. 

READ MORE: 7 physical signs of stress you shouldn’t ignore – plus what can help

Worries about mortgage payments create real, alarming threats to our sense of home safety

What does our body do with that stress? 

Take a moment to remember what it feels like to have the sympathetic system turned on. With the focus on preparing the body for action, our bodies undergo significant shifts from chemical messages sent by our brains often in response to just thoughts. 

A thought can be very threatening, particularly the ones that rake over problems of the past or worries about the future. In my experience in clinic, people often report feelings of chest pains, breathing difficulties, stomach upset, overstimulation, jumpy attention, and sensitivity to lights, noise, and people. 

Consistent, excessive cortisol can wreak havoc across our system

People with these symptoms often do confirm that they have an active mind that can be plagued with worry, and at first many do not see the connection between these symptoms and their thoughts.  But with deeper reflection, it sounds like a body with an active sympathetic nervous system. 

The brain and body are on over-alert, giving incessant alarms that threat is near and we must be prepared. 

Worries about mortgage payments or social media likes create real, alarming threats to our sense of home safety or social inclusion. Our body system responds. Yet we can’t fight the public nor flee the bank, so our system is thwarted, and we hold the stress within. 

Consistent, excessive cortisol can wreak havoc across our system, contributing to inflammation, poor immunity, gut microbiome changes, blood pressure issues, sleep disruption and various diagnosable medical conditions. 

READ MORE: 3 ways to reduce stress in 24 hours

we need to interrupt the stress response through the powerful tool of regulating our breathing

How can we stop an overactive stress response?   

The first way to interrupt an overactive stress response is to try to understand what’s going on internally. The body is primed to alert us and keep us safe, and sometimes we need to use our cognitive capacity to overrule its alarm. 

When stressors are those that are time shifted, we want to focus on mindfulness activities to return to the present, the safety of right here and right now.  This is not to disqualify the very real stresses we may face, but when a solution cannot be acted on at present, we want to have at least moments of taking breaks and brining the body system down. 

Sometimes we need to discharge some of the energy build-up, so exercise, even quick jumping jacks or push-ups

To deal with physical stress in the moment, we need to interrupt the stress response through the powerful tool of regulating our breathing, beginning with deep, long breaths out. This simple act reduces sympathetic nervous system activity to bring our body back to relaxation. 

Sometimes we need to discharge some of the energy build-up, so exercise, even quick jumping jacks or push-ups, or a walk around the block in the fresh air, can help release the energy stores in our major muscle groups as we try to return to relaxation. 

A technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (purposefully tensing and relaxing your big muscle groups, one at a time) can help further bring the system down.

To prevent re-activation of our stress response, though, we need to prevent our mind from creating more and more psychological stress that then triggers our physiological stress state. 

This is a harder skill to master, and I’ll devote the next article on exploring this – how to think about the threats in our minds, and why your stress triggers may be completely opposite to your partner’s.   

Stay tuned for the next article in this series next Thursday. 

Dr Amber Johnston is a clinical psychologist specialising in neuropsychology (

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