Stress and our body

Stress and Our Body

Researched and written by Cathrine Dinnie


Stress affects us all and while a little stress can be good for us, too much stress can make us sick, both mentally/emotionally and physically. So, what is stress? Stress is our body’s reaction to harmful situations – whether that situation is real or perceived to be real. When we feel threatened, a hormonal reaction in our body allows us to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. During the stress response, our heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten and blood pressure rises. We are now ready to act to protect ourselves.


The cause of stress is different for everyone, and some people can handle stress better than others. Stressors can be psychological or physical in nature, for example

  • Slamming on the brakes in a car to avoid an accident causes a stress response where you can act quickly. This would be a physical response followed by an emotional response!
  • An injury occurs where you break your wrist – also a physical response followed by an emotional response!
  • You have an argument with your partner – emotional response that triggers a physical response!


Essentially, the brain does not differentiate between psychological stress or physical stress, it only knows it needs to protect your body from harm.


One of the physical changes that the stress response brings about is the tightening of muscles. Tight muscles make the body more resilient to attack when in dangerous situations, they also tighten to spring into action if needed. If the body’s stress level remains high, muscles can remain tight, which in turn can cause pain and anxiety. Recent research has found that psychological stress can negatively affect the body’s ability to regulate pain. This can also be a cause for stronger than normal muscle pain.


What is muscle tension?

* Your muscles feel tight or strained, often to the point of pain.

* The pain may restrict physical activities.

* Cramping is also a sign of tension and can affect any part of the body. The most common areas would be the back, legs, feet and hands.

* Another sensation indicating muscle tension is spasms. This is a twitching or clamping/pinching feel and can cause significant pain.


Symptoms of muscle tension may:

  1. Appear briefly then disappear
  2. Remain tense or painful indefinitely
  3. Persist when trying to relax or go to sleep
  4. Resume upon waking
  5. Fluctuate in intensity
  6. Affect any muscle or group of muscles in the body
  7. Present itself with pain on the scalp, face, in the mouth or jaw
  8. Shift from one area to another


As a Remedial Massage Therapist, I am all about reducing muscle tension and pain.

I can do that through massage but, I can also do that by helping you to relax and be a listening ear! For lasting relief from anxiety related muscle tension, it is best to address the cause of your anxiety so that your body can reduce stress levels and fully recover. In the short term, you can try the following:

  • Regular massage – remedial, relaxation, aromatherapy or lymphatic drainage
  • Deep relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation
  • Gentle stretching
  • Warm baths
  • Light to moderate exercise
  • A good night’s sleep!


Coming up next, I will talk about how stress affects each system of the body, that is, the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, gastrointestinal system, nervous system and reproductive system.