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Fidgets and Finger-nail Biters: the physiological and psychological manifestations of stress

physiology and psychology of stress

Part 2 of a series by Joanna Gibb

As a life-saving reaction to imminent bodily danger, be it avoiding a potential traffic-collision or bracing for impact before a fall, the ‘Fight or Flight’ response is vital to the self-preservation of the individual. However if constantly triggered by the cacophony of stresses, strains, and frustrations found in the life of a modern worker this ever-vigilant protector has the potential to become a silent assailant.

It’s been chaos at home, traffic’s been hell, but now your desk is in sight.

[Adrenaline levels drop, and cortisol begins turning off ‘fight or flight’ mode. Pulse begins to slow]

You settle into your desk chair and begin mousing comfortably through the usual litany of emails and reminders. A brisk but comfortable day planned.

And then the symbol appears:   Inbox (1)

[Adrenaline and cortisol are released. ‘Fight or flight’ mode engages. Pulse quickens]

Your manager’s name is stamped beside it with the proclamation: “CRITICAL!”

[Pulse increases to rise. Breathing accelerates. ‘Fight or flight’ response races through all major bodily systems]


When introduced to a triggering event, catecholamine hormones such as adrenaline are released from the adrenal glands to prepare the body for rapid, life-saving action:

  • pulse and breathing accelerates to maximise flow of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles in case the individual needs to ‘fight’ or take ‘flight’
  • digestion is inhibited, and energy is redirected to the muscles
  • metabolic energy is released from it's stored form as glycogen by adrenaline binding to liver cells
  • blood sugars such as glucose are released to provide extra energy needed to survive a potential threat
  • blood vessels dilate in order to divert blood flow to muscles (this is why most people blanche white when they become scared)
  • blood pressure rises due to the rise in heart rate
  • blood clotting abilities increase to facilitate possible need for repair following injury
  • muscle tension increases; like a coiled spring, the body prepares for sudden movement

A step too far: when ‘fight or flight’ is triggered too often

The above sequence remains in place throughout triggering periods, the most noticeable of which is the increase is muscle tension, which may be sustained until muscular atrophy occurs and musculoskeletal disorders form. Many tension-headache and migraine disorders are associated with muscle-tautness in the neck, head, and shoulders.

Whilst to some this may seem like a relatively small price to pay, particularly in driven sectors where competition for employment remains fierce, the cost to the health of the individual worker and the work-environment as a whole is high.

In a study conducted by T. G Parry at the University of New South Wales in 1990, it was estimated that the total costs lost in direct result of squandered productivity in the workplace was around $670m [1].  Similarly in an article posted by businessinsider.com in 2011 they postulated that ‘stress costs companies somewhere between $200 and $300 billion each year’ due to the summation of costs from ‘health care and workers’ compensation, absenteeism, turnover, productivity loss and more [2].

These studies join the growing multitude of research that supports the notion of the workplace as a living organism, wherein the health of every individual that makes up the larger body has the ability to feed into and thus affect the overall strength and productivity of the business as a whole. However even negating the risk to one’s professional life, chronic stress has the ability to wreak havoc in all areas of our lives, from relationships to even our mortality.

The foremost risk to any individual under chronic stress is the threat to cardiovascular health; when adrenaline is increased it promotes the production of platelets thus enhancing the potential for inflammation and subsequent heart attack. Furthermore ‘stress could increase prolonged exposure to higher blood pressure and therefore promote damage to blood vessel walls, increase your risk of heart disease and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), and it could predispose you to atheroma (swelling in an artery wall), and aneurisms (a bulge in a blood vessel wall) and ischemic stroke' [3].

The above conditions, dire as they may seem remain firmly fixed within the realms of probability for even a healthy person especially in the current professional climate wherein maximum productivity takes precedence over the periods of relaxation that are becoming increasingly vital to our wellbeing. However in the case of individuals whom are already vulnerable to certain diseases, stress can be the all-important deciding factor between living conditions, from leading a normal life to, at worst, having their lifespan drastically shortened. For instance, for those that are vulnerable to Type 2 Diabetes, the constant release of extra sugars and subsequent inability to reabsorb chronic stress could be the final tipping point to full-blown diabetes.

Even at the lesser end of the spectrum, if triggered too often any of the above ‘fight or flight’ responses can be harmful. By halting digestion, increased stress levels can affect the nutrients your body is able to absorb, and in terms of heightened breathing if adrenaline levels continue to rise hyperventilation may occur, which could lead to a panic attack.

Just breathe’: psychological manifestations of stress

Despite the ‘fight or flight’ response appearing as a wholly bodily reaction wherein the rewards and potential ramifications remain localised, each trigger also has a psychological impact that has the capacity to be harmful if not managed correctly. Much like the physiological manifestations of chronic stress, psychological indicators become apparent after a constant succession of triggers over a period of time wherein no sustained ‘rest-period’ has been permitted for suitable recovery.

Symptoms may include:

  • anxiety & panic attacks
  • nervous ticks and restlessness, such as fidgeting and fingernail biting
  • aggression & angry outbursts
  • personality changes
  • impulsive behaviour
  • social withdrawal
  • compulsive behaviour, for instance an unnecessary fixation with time-keeping, specific order, and micro-management, which has the potential to create a fractious environment in a team
  • making mistakes
  • excessive defensiveness
  • relationship problems
  • communication problems - this becomes an increasingly prevalent issue when it comes to work-based relationships, especially in environments where teamwork is essential.

With regard to the relationship between cognitive function and excessive stress triggers, there is an abundance of evidence that suggests that stress affects one’s ability to mentally function at maximum capacity. If we imagine a part of the brain, the hippocampus as a kind of search engine for long-term memories, and the frontal-lobes, which are areas in charge of paying attention, our sense of judgement, and our ability to solve problems, then we can begin to understand why individuals under intense levels of stress may begin to have reduced degrees of productivity at work.

Stress hormones such as catecholamines may affect the neurons (brain cells) specific to these areas, thus making chronically stressed individuals likely to experience confusion, trouble concentrating, and issues with decision-making.

Alongside being potentially psychologically damaging on a superficial level, chronic stress also has the ability to not only prompt but also to amplify many psychological disorders, from a range of anxiety disorders to even depression. In the case of depression, most people report feelings of low energy and lethargy; the sedative effects of stress hormones add to these feelings of drowsiness and may exacerbate an individual’s isolation.

In individuals that have bipolar disorder, stress can have a dramatic effect, potentially triggering manic or depressive episodes or amplifying the intensity of the mood swings.

Stress, regardless of health status or natural aptitude for prolonged pressure, remains the great equaliser amongst us all; whether we accept it or not, for as long as stress remains a part of our culture and everyday lives we as individuals must acquire new methods in order to adapt. The next instalment will address some key tools, techniques, and strategies for dealing with stress and becoming a more resilient individual.