Dealing with Stress and Overwhelm

by | Oct 24, 2022

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: When the brain perceives danger, for example you hear a loud sound, it releases a neurotransmitter, the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) from the hypothalamus that binds to the nearby pituitary gland, which sits just underneath the brain. Subsequently, the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which travels through your body to the adrenal glands. Your adrenals sit roughly on top of the kidneys and they send off a number of chemical compounds into our bloodstream:

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

Their immediate distribution has a high impact on the body. As the levels of cortisol in your bloodstream increase, multiple systems are affected, preparing your body to either fight or flee the dangerous situation. 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 At the same time as your sympathetic nervous system is activated, blood is withdrawn from your digestive and immune system. 

Now, if a fire has activated your Sympathetic Nervous System, run! 

Good or bad stress?

Unfortunately, your body cannot differentiate between types of stress. Whether the loud noise was motorcycle racing past your window, a work deadline, or an argument with your loved one, the HPA axis is equally triggered.

Your body does not make a distinction between physical and psychological or emotional threats. It will react in the same way as if we were facing a real life-or-death situation.

Why is prolongned stress bad?

Our body is not designed to be on alert for extended periods. When we don’t find a way to calm down and release before the next stress cycle kicks in, 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. Prolonged high levels of cortisol can lead to harmful effects on our overall health causing symptoms such as:

  • Compromised immune system

  • Difficulty falling asleep and insomnia

  • Feeling exhausted and fatigued throughout the day

  • Struggling to wakeup

  • Substance dependency (coffee, tea, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs etc.)

  • Brain fog
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and digestive tract issues, low appetite
  • Increased craving for sugar and/or salt
  • Unexplained weight gain/loss
  • Unexplained hair loss

  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased risk of cardiac events (heart attack, stroke)
  • Increased ageing process
  • Vulnerability to mental health issues (anxiety, depression)

Life style matters

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

Most of the time problems caused by prolonged stress can be improved by lifestyle changes. In particular, consider making more balanced choices if you find yourself:

  • Regularly over working under high pressure
  • Regularly over exercising (frequent injuries)
  • In a sedentary job (under exercising) 
  • Experiencing gut issues (inflammation, sugar, fat, excessive dieting)

Regular physical exericse and a balanced diet help us relax and counteract stress. If you find yourself stuck in stress cycles on a trajectory to burnout, and struggle to decide what changes to make, it’s time to update your stress management strategies! Come talk to a professional who can assist you in discovering ways to better deal with stress, and help you gain insight into the behavioural and relational patterns that trigger stress and overwhelm for you enabling you to make different choices. 

If you would like to find out more about how lifestyle changes can increase your stress resilience, schedule an inquiry call today!


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