• Stress is a whole body response; it affects us physically and mentally

  • Charlotte Watts explains how stress manifests in the body, in the short and long-term

  • If you are struggling with stress, you can find a therapist here

Stress is a whole body response; no part of us is left out of this primal and immediate prompt to prepare and saddle up for danger.

Back in the day, this might have meant us standing to fight that beast or duel or turning heel and running for the wind. This ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is still the only reaction we have to perceived danger and it involves physical, mental and emotional change on a grand scale, changing our whole biochemistry and the way we perceive the world around us.

Whilst we are hard-wired to act out as our ancestors would have done in the wild, modern challenges often don’t allow us to play through the surge of change that arises. This is where it can build up and as our stressors tend to come in drip-feed form, rather than quicker events, accumulation is easy. Those difficult emails, money worries, work load and personal issues all affect all parts of us.

Here are some key areas we can see signs of stress letting us know to take things easy:


One of the first body systems to be affected by stress is our outer casing, the skin. Stress has energy quickly diverted to areas viewed as key to survival; mostly brain and muscle for quick responses. Stressed skin suffers from less circulation and oxygenation and can take on a dull, grey pallor. The inflammatory part of the stress response adds to skin flare-ups.


Digestion is seen as a long-term project when survival mode has us prioritising the short-term for self-protection. All digestive function halts when the nervous system is in excitatory mode, which can leave food eaten hanging around and causing gas and bloating, as well as contributing to food intolerances. Digestion needs calm to happen and poor function can affect all body systems.


When digestion suffers, immunity quickly follows. Stress reduces levels of our beneficial gut bacteria, probiotics, which govern immune modulation or how appropriately (or not) our immune system responds. Over–response can mean chronic inflammation, as seen in conditions like arthritis, acne and heart disease or auto-immune conditions like lupus where the immune system attacks ‘self’. Short-term stress causes a boost of immunity, but long-term, it becomes suppressed and unable to fight off infection.


Tensing muscle for action is a fundamental part of the physical expression our bodies expect from stress. The trouble is we can get locked there and the areas like the neck, shoulders and lower back can tend to feel achy and sore. Stressed breath is directed up into the chest and shoulders (rather than calm diaphragm and belly breathing) which is very tiring and sets up habits that upset posture.


Our brains are our most important protective organs in the face of a challenge, with our big front brains, we rely on a constant back-and-forth of older primal brain emotions and this more evolved rational thinking.

Our brains are energy-rich and use up around 20% of energy expended when resting and around 75% when stressed, leaving little left for the rest of the body and why we feel full-body exhausted after mental and emotional stresses. Stress has us reacting from the more impulsive side of the decision-making sphere, meaning the primal knee-jerk brain often wins out and we can give into cravings, become irritable and choose paths that might not serve us in the long run.

Eyes and ears

The full on assault of ‘constant alert’ keeps all senses on hyper-vigilance and if get caught in this mode as ‘normal’, we can then struggle to shut those filters down. A key sign that stress is wandering into adrenal fatigue or burnout territory, is noise and light sensitivity, even a need to retreat away from all stimulus and other people.

Charlotte Watts is a nutritional therapist and yoga teacher

Further reading

How green spaces reduce stress

Stress, IBS and the gut-brain axis

How our relationships protect us against stress

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

5 ways to manage post-pandemic stress