1st Sep 2020

Borne out of our desire to survive the onslaught of potential threats during our cave-dwelling days, the human stress response lives on today as a reaction to all manner of potential pressure points.

Whether it’s a looming deadline at work, busy schedule, or particularly bad traffic, stress is an unfortunate part of our modern lifestyles.

Regardless of the cause, you may be wondering what the fight or flight response is, how it may affect your body, and tips to relieve stress.

Read on to learn more about stress. Alternatively, you might like to use the links below to navigate to the specific information you’re looking for.

What is Stress?

You’re likely familiar with the feeling of being ‘stressed’. After all, it’s a common occurrence in many people’s lives.

Stress may be caused by major life events, both positive and negative. It may also stem from routine matters related to the demands of everyday life and day-to-day financial, familial, work-related, and personal responsibilities.

These situations activate our nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which triggers our bodies to enter survival mode. It’s a mechanism that’s designed to protect us during life threatening situations (1)

Unfortunately, our bodies can sometimes overreact. When this happens, day-to-day events may also trigger this response (1). This reaction happens so quickly that we’re often unaware of the changes happening within our bodes in response to these stressors.

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What is the Fight or Flight Response?

It’s probable that you experience the fight or flight response every now and again, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Initially, the fight or flight instinct developed as a way for animals to be conscious of the potential dangers around them and take action to help ensure their survival.

When presented with a potential threat, it primes the body to respond at peak performance levels (2).

Put simply, it readies the body to either remain in the situation and ‘fight’ or run away in ‘flight’ from the danger.

Common Signs of the Fight or Flight Response:

Although you may experience the fight or flight response without knowing it, there are some physical signs to look out for. These include:

  • Rapid Heartbeat and Breathing: To help fuel a rapid response to the perceived threat, your heart rate and respiration rate may increase, providing energy and oxygen to the parts of the body that need it (3).
  • Pale or Flushed Skin: Blood is sent to the muscles, brain, legs, and arms, supporting them to either fight or run away. As a result, blood flow to the surface areas of the body may be reduced. You may become pale or your face may switch between flushed and pale as blood rushes to your head and brain (3).
  • Dilated Pupils: To be more aware and observant of your surroundings, your pupils may dilate to allow more light into the eyes and support your vision of your surroundings (4).
  • Muscle Tension: As your body prepares to address the perceived threat or flee from it, you may experience heightened (and often unnecessary) muscle activity. If you continue to encounter stress-inducing situations in daily life, you may also experience ongoing muscle tension (2).
  • Trembling: As your muscles get ready to respond to danger, the tension may also result in trembling or shaking (3).

If any of these symptoms persist or worsen, or you’re otherwise concerned about your stress levels, talk to your health professional.

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What are Some of the Common Causes of Stress?

Every person’s experiences with stress are unique. A scenario that triggers a stress response in one person may not phase another. However, there are some scenarios that are common causes of stress.

You may find it useful to reflect on the following areas to identify potential sources of stress (4):

  • Work: including extended working hours, growing to-do lists, slow progress, and challenging workplace relationships. If you’d like to discover some tips for maintaining workplace wellbeing, click here.
  • Major life changes: such as having a baby, moving to a new house, changing jobs, and moving to a new city.
  • Financial tensions: including significant bills, debt, and saving efforts.
  • Relationship issues: such as the breakdown of a friendship or romantic relationship.
  • Study: including upcoming university deadlines and exams.

If any of these areas are contributing to your ongoing stress or you are otherwise concerned about your mental health, visit a health professional to discuss ways forward and coping mechanisms. For additional support, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

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What are Some of the Common Signs of Stress?

There are several ways that stress may manifest in the body, and much like the common causes of stress, the common signs of stress may vary from person to person.

When you’re stressed there are a number of symptoms you may experience. Keep an eye out for some of the more common ones, including (4):

  • Muscle tension: The body’s fight-or-flight response signals to the body that you are situation deemed dangerous, and thus your body may experience heightened muscle activity resulting in tension (2).
  • Mild headaches: As a result of tension in the neck, headaches may occur. This is due to the contraction of muscles in areas near the head, like the neck and scalp (5)
  • Tiredness: When you are stressed, you may find it more challenging than usual to get a restful night’s sleep.
  • Lack of concentration: Linked to tiredness, your concentration levels may wane and you may be finding it trickier to stay awake or alert to your surroundings.

If any of these symptoms persist or you have any concerns about your stress levels, talk to your health professional.

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Is There a Relationship Between Stress and Pain?

Have you ever noticed that there seems to be a relationship between your stress levels and your experiences with mild pain?

The relationship between stress and pain is a complex one that may manifest in several different ways for different people.

This includes:

  • Inflammation: one of the common physical manifestations of ongoing stress may be inflammation. Usually, inflammation is a normal part of your body’s healing process, but when your body remains in ‘fight or flight’ mode for an extended period this inflammation may lead to mild pain or swelling (2).
  • Mild neck pain: when you’re stressed, your muscles may tense in an effort to guard against potential danger. This includes the muscles in your neck, which (due to its proximity to your head) may also lead to headaches (5).
  • Mild mid-back pain: you may have noticed that when you’re stressed your breathing pattern may change. Over time, this may cause strain or tension in the mid-back area, which includes muscles that are affected by breathing (5).
  • Mild lower back pain: during periods of work-related stress, you may become more sedentary as you spend more time sitting at a desk and less time stretching or exercising. Your lower back includes muscles that affect flexibility and posture, so a lack of movement may contribute to mild lower back pain (5).

If you’re interested in learning more about how stress may affect the body, you can find more information here.

If you have any concerns about your mental health or stress levels, talk to your health professional. For additional support or advice, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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Is There a Relationship Between Stress and Sleep?

Have you ever experienced a temporary bout of sleeplessness during times of stress? You’re not alone. In fact, experiencing poorer sleep while stressed is a common occurrence experience for many people (6).

If you have trouble quieting your busy mind during times of stress, you may struggle to drift off to dreamland. Stress hormones also usually peak in the afternoon and early evening, which are the times when we generally begin to relax and prepare to fall sleep (6).

The catch 22 arises in that the relationship between stress and sleep may sometimes go both ways.

Although heightened stress levels may make it more challenging for you to doze off, a lack of sleep may also increase your body’s stress hormones.

This is because there is some overlap between the chemicals in your brain that are connected with deep sleep and the ones telling the body to stop producing stress hormones (6).

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Tips to Help Support Your Sleep in Times of Stress

If you’re experiencing temporary periods of sleeplessness, you may find the following tips helpful (7):

  • Be consistent with your bedtime: ensure you go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  • Maintain a relaxed sleeping environment: including dim lighting and a comfortable temperature
  • Remove electronic devices from the bedroom: leave them elsewhere in the house. This includes smartphones, TVs and laptops.
  • Exercise during the day: being physically active during the day may help you fall asleep at night.

If you’d like more tips to help you doze off to sleep, you can find more information here.

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Tips to Help Relieve your Stress

Although stress may be an unfortunate biproduct of our modern lifestyles, there are some techniques you may implement to help relieve its symptoms.

If you’re concerned about your stress levels, make an appointment with your health professional to discuss possible coping strategies.

During your appointment, you may find it useful to discuss the following tips to relieve stress:


Have you ever noticed you have a spring in your step after exercising? Physical activity can prompt the release of hormones such as endorphins, which act to relieve stress (11).

Stress may also lead to muscle tension, and so regular exercise may be helpful for relieving this and its associated discomfort (11).

As a rule of thumb, it’s recommended that we’re active for at least 30 minutes a day, five times per week. This is an opportunity to not only maintain your fitness levels, but to also help you unwind (8).

Most forms of exercise may help to relieve stress. So, try selecting an activity that you enjoy doing as this will encourage you to continue it in the long term.

You May Enjoy The Following Exercises:

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Swimming

Always consult your health professional before beginning any new exercise regime.

Practice Organisation Techniques

Time management and a mounting to-do list are common causes of stress. As such, taking the time to organise your tasks may help you to gain a sense of control and reduce your associated stress (9).

Writing a comprehensive list can help you to visualise your priorities and keep you focused on each individual task, seeing it through to completion. You may also find that by writing your to-dos down on paper, you help to clear them from your mind.

Prioritising urgent tasks and identifying what can be left until later may also help you feel less overwhelmed by your workload.

It’s important to be realistic with your time and how long it may take to complete each task. And, of course, it’s helpful to include a timeslot in your schedule to reward yourself when you’ve completed an important task.

Focus On Your Breath

Stress can impact how you breathe, which may affect how you feel both physically and mentally (10). By slowly inhaling and exhaling you may centre your focus on regaining control of your breath, rather than the thoughts that are worrying you.

A helpful breathing exercise to keep in mind is the 4,7,8 rule. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed or stressed, try taking a quiet, deep breath in for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and then exhale forcefully for eight seconds to relieve stress.

Identify The Potential Causes

By identifying the potential cause of your stress, you may be able to either reduce your exposure to the trigger or equip yourself with coping strategies to manage it in the future (6).

Once you have identified the common causes of your own stress, you may find it useful to make an appointment with your health professional. They can assess your individual experiences and offer tailored coping strategies accordingly.

Mindfulness and Meditation 12, 13

Regularly practising meditation may help to relieve stress can train your mind to be more open and less reactive to situations (11).

If you’re looking for some additional guidance, meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm may help.

But remember, leave technology out of the bedroom if you’re struggling to fall asleep at night.

Maintain Social Support 12

Maintaining a strong support network is an important part of preventing and managing stress. This may be an assortment of people including your partner, close friends, family members, and health professionals.

Knowing you have someone to turn to in times of stress may help you feel less alone in your worries. Your network may also offer additional resources or coping strategies during stressful periods, as well as a supportive shoulder to lean on to help you feel understood.

Regularly Check In With Your Body

As you go about your day-to-day life, you may find it useful to regularly check in with your body to identify and potential signs of stress sooner rather than later.

Headaches, muscle tension and trouble sleeping may all be warning signs of stress. If you notice them beginning to arise, you may be able to nip them in the bud by taking conscious steps to unwind.

Although stress is common, it’s something that may need to be managed over time depending on the individual. If you have any concerns about your stress levels or mental health, speak with your health professional or contact Beyond Blue for additional support.

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What's Next?

If you found this article useful, you may also enjoy the following:

How Stress Affects The Body And Tips To Help Relieve It

4 Tell-Tale Signs You’re Stressed


  1. (2019). Stress. [online] Available at:
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  3. Heckman, W. (2019). How the Fight or Flight Response Works – The American Institute of Stress. [online] The American Institute of Stress. Available at:
  4. (2018). Symptoms of stress. [online] Available at:
  5. (2014). Easy tips to relieve stress-related neck and back pain | Back and Spine | Brain | UT Southwestern Medical Center. [online] Available at:
  6. (2014). Easy tips to relieve stress-related neck and back pain | Back and Spine | Brain | UT Southwestern Medical Center. [online] Available at:
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2019). CDC – Sleep Hygiene Tips – Sleep and Sleep Disorders. [online] Available at:
  8. (2018). 5 ways to reduce stress right now. [online] Available at:
  9. (2019). Physical Activity. [online] Available at:
  10. Verywell Mind. (n.d.). Preventive Stress Management Can Help Reduce Health Problems. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Aug. 2020].
  11. (2018). 5 ways to reduce stress right now. [online] Available at:
  12. Headspace. (2016). Try a Meditation for Stress Now![online] Available at:
  13. Canstar. (2020). 10 of My Favourite Meditation and Mindfulness Apps From 2019. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Aug. 2020].