How does your body respond to Stress?

May 19, 2022 | 20 comments

In this special series Russell Semon will explore four key questions about stress:

Part 1: What is Stress?

Part 2: How does your body respond to Stress? (Physiology)

Part 3: What role does your mind play in responding to Stress? (Belief / Perception)

Part 4: Is it possible to live a Stress-Free life?

Today we continue with “How does your body respond to stress?” Putting actions with words, we’re not just talking about stress, we want to help you manage your stress! As with other days, Russell is giving away 5 free Cerny Smith Assessments that includes the test and a follow-up meeting with him. You can read about the CSA here and enter below to win the one of the five given away today! Without further ado, on to the article.


Have you heard of the “boiling frog syndrome”? Conceptually, it’s what happens when an individual fails to accept, acknowledge, or act against a problem that gradually increases in severity until it reaches disastrous consequences for that individual. Maybe you’ve heard about it from the perspective of the parable, the frog in the kettle. The idea is that if you place a frog in a kettle of cool water and slowly raise the temperature of the water, the frog’s body slowly adjusts to the temperature until it eventually dies. But, supposedly, if you were to drop the frog into a pot of boiling water, it would immediately jump out. PETA concerns aside, the illustration fits well with how our bodies often react to stress. (No frogs were injured in the preparation of this article!)

In the first article, using an engineering formula analogy, I compared stress to the weight or burden imposed on us by life challenges. Switching to the frog in the kettle analogy, life is good and we’re living relatively stress free until the water temperature slowly rises. We experience our “temperature” rising due to stress through physiological responses like, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension, change in appetite, irritability, difficulty sleeping, etc., but like the frog, many of us don’t stop to consider the long-term effects of these symptoms until they result in more serious physical complications. This is what happens to our bodies as a result of chronic stress. 

Psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe (1967) studied the link between stress and physical illness. Their “Life Stress Inventory” has been widely used to inform people of potential long term health risks related to stress. The inventory lists areas of “Life Change” and ascribes a weighted value to each. Holmes and Rahe propose that the accumulation of multiple stressors and the sum of the life changes weighted values have some predictive value for future negative health outcomes.

They suggest that a total score of 300 or above represents an 80% chance of a “health breakdown” in the next 2 years. I’ve read that research performed by Larry and Lois Dodd (2000) found the average American stress score was 200 and that the average cross-cultural worker scored around 650.  I’m not quite sure where the “boiling point” would be on this scale, but it seems like scores over 300 would definitely have the kettle whistling. 

What happens if the stress is severe, or perceived as potentially life threatening? The human body’s reaction to acute stressors is more immediate than the “slow boil” of chronic stress. When we experience acute stress our bodies go through what’s known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, which I find somewhat ironic because it is very much like putting your foot on the gas! 

The first phase of this syndrome is the Alarm reaction phase. It is during this phase that we experience the “fight or flight” response. Your adrenal glands release cortisol (the stress hormone) and you get a boost of adrenaline which increases the energy you need to quickly respond and avoid harm. 

Sometime after the initial reaction, as the threat diminishes, cortisol levels are decreased and your heart rate and blood pressure begin to return to normal. Your body and mind remain alert to potential danger as your body slowly returns to pre-reaction levels

The next phase in this stress syndrome is the exhaustion phase. This phase occurs after your body has returned to a pre-reaction state and the impact of expending large amounts of physical, emotional and mental energy during the alarm reaction results in exhaustion.   

Whether your stress is chronic or acute, the body’s response, the symptoms you experience, serve as warning signs for you to take action. The sooner you respond to the warning signs, the increasing weight or rising temperature, the more likely you are to avoid potentially serious physical complications. (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, mental health challenges, etc.)  God’s design in the body’s response to stress is ultimately to ensure that we are well, body and soul.

Pay attention to the warning signs in your body that tell you the temperature is rising. Returning to the engineering example, God uses your body to let you know when the weight of something is getting too heavy. Many of us need to grow in paying attention to and listening to our bodies, and believing them when they communicate with us!

Paying attention to our bodies is one thing, doing something about it quite another. Sometimes not paying attention to our bodies becomes a habit, and habits are hard to break.

I’m glad that we have a God that cares, understands and who tells us to come to Him and He’ll give us rest. (Matt. 11:28). I find encouragement in Paul’s exhortation to not be anxious about anything but in everything, be thankful to God. I pray that as you respond to life’s changes and stressors in your life, you will experience the peace of God “that transcends our understanding” trusting that He will guard your hearts and minds.

In the next article, we will take a look at what role our minds play in our stress.

Leave a comment on today’s post and you’ll be entered to win one of the FIVE available today (winners drawn by end of day Friday in America). Other opportunities to win will come with parts 3 and 4. To be sure you don’t miss out, subscribe to the blog here.

Photo by Vaclav on Unsplash

Russell Semon

Husband, Father, Counselor, Stress Specialist, Fan of life-long learning

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20 Comments

  1. Chris Moore

    I would be interested to know more about what a “health breakdown” would be defined as… With cross-cultural workers scoring an average of 650, then are we constantly experiencing breakdowns?

    Reply
    • Russell

      Good question. The finding of their research was that there is a positive correlation between stress and illness. We know from experience and their research also found, that the amount of stress and the time frame of these stressors impacts the likelihood of one’s experiencing some stress related illness. The answer to, if, when, or how often, we experience some stress related illness depends, to a significant degree, on our ability to resolve, ameliorate, mitigate our stressors (Resiliency ?).

      Reply
  2. Rebekah

    I’ve noticed that I have certain physical symptoms that always occur around times of travel & transition (like the week before and after travel or a trip) – loss of appetite, in fact unable to eat more than half the portion size I usually would; frequent diarrhoea; strong sensitivity to caffeine in coffee which causes severe anxiety (only at these times of transition), as well as some other things. Even just recognising that I’m going through a period of transition, and that’s the reason for the symptoms, helps to relieve some of the concern! Knowing that at least those symptoms will probably die down after a week of so is reassuring. It’s just one of those things I’ve learned about myself and have come to expect and accept.

    Reply
  3. Sarah Leonard

    How do we lower the crazy high scores that many of us as cross-cultural workers must have? I feel like we live in contexts that just by their very nature produce low grade stress, and then when you throw in transitions, loss, safety issues, etc., the stress increases. I am hoping future articles will address tools we can use on a regular basis to manage and decrease our levels of stress.

    Reply
    • Russell

      Sarah, yes, that’s what I liked about what Lois Dodd did in adding cross cultural “life events” to this scale. I’ve noticed several comments here about individuals being aware of the physical indicators of stress and making life adjustments to compensate or mitigate the impact. The CSA helps to structure, organize, get a different view of the stressors in our lives and then it also provides some suggestions for how to enhance one’s strengths and to mitigate one’s challenges.

      Reply
  4. Janine Westlund

    Wow the timing of this part is ideal. Yesterday my body was physically reacting to my stress. I knew and felt it. I reached out for prayer, sat down to breathe, and ate a meal. Thank you for putting words to my feelings and reaction.

    Reply
  5. Stephanie Gutierrez

    Great article! Do you have a link to the research done by Larry and Lois Dodd that you mentioned? I would love to dig more into that!

    Reply
  6. Karen

    I’m fascinated by the way our bodies work. Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been learning my body is aware of many things I’m consciously not aware of. Especially when I was beginning to learn this, it seemed like the weirdest thing. Sometimes I would end up crying with tears pouring down my face, but when friends asked me what is wrong, I could only say, “nothing,” or “I don’t know.” I’ve also noticed I tend to have stress reactions after being exposed to viruses, even if I don’t end up actually becoming ill and even though I don’t think I’m someone who’s particularly worried about the possibility of becoming ill.

    Reply
  7. Jordan

    A timely reminder to go to bed early tonight after a particularly stressful day parenting.

    Reply
  8. Heather Fowler

    One of the greatest stressors in my life is knowing that if I fail to perform my duties I’m increasing someone else’s stress lev.

    Reply
    • Russell

      Good points, Jordan and Heather. We all have “daily” stressors, parenting, our jobs, our thoughts/expectations, etc. The Holmes Rahe scale asks that you identify life event “changes”. So when you add changes to areas of chronic or ongoing stress, you could see how one’s capacity could be easily exceeded.

      Reply
  9. Russell Werdehausen

    I’m excited for parts 3 and 4 of this series! I expect it to be refreshing to see this approached from a biblical perspective to understand how to experience the peace of God “that transcends our understanding”.

    Reply
  10. Michele Zintz

    This explanation helps me understand why I get headaches or stomach issues or just plain tired when a difficulty is over. I don’t notice my body telling me anything as I push on through, but a few days later it seems to catch up with me. This just happened this week. I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired and lethargic the last couple of days but it clicked as I read this that my body is reacting to a stressful situation I worked through for a couple of weeks. I gave myself a day off afterwards, but I think my body just kept coming down. I’m really bad at paying attention to this stuff, honestly.

    Reply
  11. T Lynn Pottenger

    It is so interesting how stress shows itself in our bodies. Thanks for the good information!

    Reply
  12. Paulette

    Maybe most frogs are intelligent and athletic enough to jump out if you drop them into boiling water. I have no intentions of conducting organized experiments on this.

    But one real-life incident I can report is that one morning in the jungle I found a boiled tree frog in the pot of water I had boiled and left uncovered overnight. I felt really bad, and ever since then that frog parable always reminds me of that poor, unsuspecting little frog.

    All jungle experience joking aside, the information in this article and how it applies specifically to cross-cultural workers was very helpful and relevant. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Russell

      Paulette, I’ve never heard a real life example, thanks. I guess either way, slow boil or falling in, are hazardous and can have serious consequences. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention, be aware of signs and symptoms. Learn from experience and incorporate times of rest, restoration, following stressful events in life.

      Reply
  13. Dina

    I’m very interested in seeing your next posts. People tell me I’m rather self-aware, and my list of “life changes” is long. And seems to have stayed long for a decade. I’ve joked that “you’d be scared if you knew my number”, but it is something I think about. I do try to recharge often, but am learning new ways to more effectively recharge. For example, acknowledging that TV shouldn’t be my go to when I’m tired. Eating a meal outside is much better.

    Reply
  14. Neal Pirolo

    None of These Diseases by S.I. McMillen explains a lot about how anxiety affects the body. I like the illustration (not sure if it is in his book) of the boy who went with his father to get some medicine for his wife. On the way out, the boy asked his dad, what is the medicine for. Dad responds, “Mom has colitis.” The boy thoughtfully asks, “Who is Mom colliding with?”

    Reply

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