Dealing with Stress and Overwhelm

by | Jul 24, 2014

These days chronic stress and anxiety are common in our fast-paced world and this comes at a high cost to our mind and body. Learn how to recognise overwhelming stress and anxiety, and discover ways to cope better.

The HPA-Axis

HPA stands for Hypothalamus – Pituitary Gland – Adrenal Glands

We live in a fast paced culture that is dominated by thinking and doing. Just trying to keep up with life whilst juggling work, home, social commitments and finances can be stress provoking. When our body perceives stress it reacts with the fight/flight survival mechanism, by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System.

It goes like this: The brain perceives stress and sends a signal to the hypothalamus that sends, in turn, a hormone-signal to the pituitary gland, which sits just underneath the brain. The pituitary gland then sends a hormone-signal to the adrenal glands. They sit roughly on top of the kidneys and send off a number of chemical compounds into our bloodstream:

  • adrenaline (epiphrine),
  • noradrenaline (norepiphrine)
  • and cortisol.

Their immediate distribution has high impact on the body. Your heart starts to pound faster, you start to sweat, your blood pressure rises, your breath quickens, your muscles get ready for action and movement and your senses become sharper (NIH, 2002). At the same time blood is withdrawn from your digestive and immune system. 

You can see how these changes prepare you to freeze, fight or flee from whatever threat or danger you perceive in this moment. Now, if a fire has activated your Sympathetic Nervous System, run! 

What is chronic stress

Unfortunately, our nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing physical and psychological or emotional threats.

We can get stressed out by a work deadline, financial pressures or an argument with a loved one, and our body will react in the same way as if we were facing a real life-or-death situation.

When we don’t find a way to calm down and release before the next stress arises, our sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in a feedback loop whereby adrenalin and cortisol are picked up by the hypothalamus over and over, re-triggering cycles thereby putting our system on chronic overdrive.

The more our emergency system is activated, the more sensitive it will become to triggers and the harder it becomes to shut off. We end up feeling on a hair trigger, chronically stressed and overwhelmed.

Over time chronic stress has negative effects on both mental and physical health.

Our immune system becomes compromised; we may experience insomnia; our digestion and reproductive system can be effected; we are at risk of heart attack and stroke; the ageing process is sped up. Eventually it can leave us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

The Romans knew, mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind lives in a healthy body.

Regular phyisical exericse and a balanced diet help us relax and counteract stress. Talking therapies can help you find ways to better deal with anxiety and update your stress management strategies, as well as gain insight into the behavioural and relational patterns that trigger stress and overwhelm for you.  


by Veronika Kloucek, MA MBACP UKCP YAP accr., Integrative Psychotherapist & Counsellor